of the Catholic Indian Mission
Catholic presence has existed on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation
for 130 years – long before North Dakota was a state and before
the Diocese of Bismarck existed. The Benedictine monks from Conception
Abbey in Conception, Missouri, arrived in Dakota Territory on October
17, 1884, one year after the Standing Rock Reservation was founded
and ministered to the Native Americans and the Whites on the reservation
for the next 111 years.
In 1876, Abbot
Martin Marty, OSB, from St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, arrived
on the Standing Rock Reservation. Under his guidance and direction
as abbot and later as bishop, the Catholic Missions sprang up. Fort
Yates came into existence in 1879; Cannonball in 1882, and Porcupine
in 1890. White parishes were also established at Selfridge and Solen.
Fort Yates and
Kenel (in South Dakota) were the two sites where the missionaries,
together with the governmental agencies, first established formal
Foffa, OSB, and Brother Giles Laugel, OSB, cleared an old agency building
at Fort Yates, where shortly after Easter, 1877, they opened the first
school. Four Benedictine Sisters from Ferdinand, Indiana, arrived
in 1878 to help in the school. The school was opened as a governmental
school under the auspices of the Catholic Church.
Bishop Marty considered
the care of the Sioux Indians his dearest work. He was constantly
seeking new laborers in this vineyard. In 1880, he had only 13 priests
in the entire Dakota Territory. Four of these were ministering on
the Standing Rock Reservation.
With the arrival
of Father Bernard Strassmaier, OSB, and Fr. Francis Gerschwyler, OSB,
Standing Rock saw the beginning of the
longest tenure any two priests would serve there in the next one
hundred plus years.
arrived in 1886 shortly after his ordination to the priesthood. In
1880, he was made pastor of Fort Yates. This would be his only
pastoral assignment, for he served on Standing Rock for the next 50
The Native people
loved Father Bernard. This admiration was especially evident at the
time of his golden jubilee of ordination in 1936 when they presented
him with a new car, an extraordinary gift during the Great Depression
years. Father Bernard died on the reservation in 1940. The Indian
sermon was preached by
to Standing Rock in 1890 and was ordained a priest in what is now the
Diocese of Bismarck. Like Father Bernard, Father Francis’ assignment
in Sioux County was the only one this priest would ever have. He
believed that to reach the heart of the Indian people, he had to speak
their language fluently. He moved in with an Indian family and became
so fluent in the Sioux language that many people believed it was his
native tongue. Failing health resulted in his leaving the reservation
in 1940. He returned to Conception Abbey where he died in 1946 at the
age of 86.
of a Catholic Mission Day School
Foreseeing already in 1910 that eventually the teaching of religion
would no longer be permitted in government schools, and that the sisters
would be withdrawn from the schools, Father Bernard undertook the
responsibility of establishing a Catholic Mission Day School. He,
together with Father Othmar Buerkler, OSB, and the Benedictine Sisters
from Yankton, S.D., converted an old meeting hall into a one-room
The fall of 1924
saw 60 students enrolled. The first graduation class reflected the
standards of excellence of the school. Three of the graduates received
a hundred percent on their State Board exams, and the fourth student
forgot a decimal point and missed the hundred mark.
An addition to
the school was constructed in 1926. This building served as the Catholic
Indian Mission School until the cornerstone of the present school
was laid in 1964.
With the retirement and death of Fathers Bernard, Francis, Martin
and Bruno, the early period in the history of the Catholic Indian
Mission came to a close. Their retirement years and the time following
their deaths have been referred to as the “transition period”
on Standing Rock. This period was filled with many changes and also
In 1936, Father
Luke Becker, OSB, was sent as an assistant to Father Bernard. Among
his accomplishments was the construction of St. Teresa’s Hall
as a parish center. With the completion of the present school, this
building was converted into a used clothing center for the needy of
Meyer, OSB, arrived at Fort Yates in 1938. Following Father Bernard’s
death in 1940, he was appointed pastor, a post he held for 20 years,
laboring for Christ among the Indians and Whites at Fort Yates and
the neighboring missions.
and replacements took place during Father Alfred’s tenure as
pastor. A new convent for the sisters was built in 1957, and in 1961
the old log cabin that had been used for many years as a rectory was
replaced. In 1964, the cornerstone for the present school was laid,
and on February 8, 1965, classes were held in the new building for
the first time. The school was renamed St. Bernard Mission School
in honor of Father Bernard Strassmaier.
In 1973, plans
were drawn up for a new church. On July 29, 1973, a Mass of Thanksgiving
was celebrated for the last time in the old church, which had served
the people at Fort Yates for 96 years.
On September 7,
1975, the same bells that rang out in thanksgiving for an era passed
announced the dedication of the new Church of St. Peter. The church,
resembling a tepee, stands on the site of the old church and was set
into the bluffs without destroying the natural terrain.
In 1995, the monks of Conception Abbey withdrew from the
Catholic Indian Mission. Their 111 years of service culminated with
a July 2nd Service of Thanksgiving, conducted by Bishop John F. Kinney
of the Bismarck Diocese and Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB, of Conception
The Diocese of Bismarck assumed operation of the Standing Rock parishes
on July 1, 1995, with Father Casimir Paluck as pastor. He served until
2000 when Father Terry Wipf was named pastor. Father William
Cosgrove served as pastor until August 2009.
Basil Atwell is currently serving as pastor, assisted by Brother
George Maufort, SDS, an ordained deacon. They continue to minister
today to the five parishes that make up the Sioux County Faith
Community: St. Peter, Fort Yates; St. Elizabeth, Cannon Ball; St.
James, Porcupine; and the parish of St. Philomena, Selfridge, and its