History of the Catholic Indian Mission

A 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 educational centers.

Fr. Chrysostom 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.

Father Bernard 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 years!
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 Father Francis.

Father Francis came 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.

Establishment 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 school.

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.

Transition Period

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 many accomplishments.

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 the area.

Father Alfred 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.

Many renovations 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 Abbey.


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.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

                                                              Father 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 mission Sacred Heart, Solen.



Copyright 2013 St. Bernard Mission School