History of the Saint Bernard Mission School

The true cornerstone of the Catholic Indian Mission is St. Bernard Mission School. It has always been the belief of those on the reservation that the key to future success is education.

During the late 1800s, government schools operated on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, staffed by Benedictine priests from Indiana and Missouri and Benedictine sisters from Yankton, S.D. These early government schools taught religion and daily Mass was a part of the students’ school life.

In 1912, a movement of separation of church and state was gaining momentum in Congress. A premier ruling was the “anti-garb order,” forbidding any further addition to the civil service of persons wearing a distinctive garb, i.e. Catholic nuns. Executive Order No. 601 from the Secretary of Interior or Valentine order of 1912 stated that all insignia from any denomination must be removed from all Indian schools. This looked like the end of sisters teaching in all Indian schools, but Father W.H. Ketcham, director of the Catholic Bureau of Indian Missions brought the order to the attention of President Taft, who promptly rescinded it. The sisters stayed on until either death or ill health caused them to leave the school.

In 1923, the last sister from Yankton left the Standing Rock Government Indian School after 40 years of service.

Father Bernard, however, saw the need for continuing Catholic education on Standing Rock for both Indian and non-Indian children in order to further education and spirituality in their lives. His first task was to find a building in which to house the school. The Forester House, which had been used for meetings and social gatherings, was obtained and the first all Catholic school opened in 1924 with 60 students. The school was called Standing Rock Catholic Indian Mission Day School and was later changed to St. Bernard Mission School in honor of Father Bernard.

In 1926 enrollment increased to 70 students. The following year an addition was built to the west side of the building. By 1936 enrollment was up to 100 students – 2/3 Indian and 1/3 white.
By the early 1960s, the old frame building that served the school so well from the beginning was beginning to wear out and needed to be replaced. On February 8, 1965, classes were held in the new building for the first time.

In the early sixties, the Mother of God Monastery of Watertown, S.D., was established from the Yankton community. Because this new monastery was closer to Fort Yates, this mission became the responsibility of the new sisters from Mother of God Convent, Watertown. With the opening of the new school, more classrooms became available creating a mixed blessing in the operation of the institution: with more classrooms, more teachers and more money was needed to operate the school. Brother Mark from Conception Abbey was assigned to Fort Yates and began a very successful campaign for the mission.

During the seventies a unique proposal was submitted to the mission for use of the Mission School. A Bureau of Indian Affairs Educational Administrator needing more classroom space for the crowded community school requested that the mission school become part of the local education community and the BIA would take over the operation of the school. A parish committee was established and after several meetings recommended that St. Bernard Mission School stay independent and the recommendation was accepted.

From the sixties to the mid-seventies various sisters from Watertown came to teach and administer at St. Bernard Mission School. Sisters of other religious communities also came to serve at the mission for various amounts of time. The last Benedictine Sister left after the 1988 school year when the Mother of God Monastery could no longer provide sisters to staff the Mission.

The first School Sister of Notre Dame, from Mankato, Minn., arrived at St. Bernard Mission School in 1981. The Notre Dames continue to serve the school today. Sister Julie Brandt, SSND, arrived in Fort Yates in 1995 and served as principal of the school until June, 2006. Two School Sisters of Notre Dame from the St. Louis Province also minister at the school: Sister Dannel Wedemeyer, who has been there since 1994, and Sister Nicolette Karcher, who arrived in 1997. The new principal at St. Bernard is Sister Richarde Wolf, SSND.

This year, 62 students are enrolled in grades 1-6 at St. Bernard Mission School. Graduates of St. Bernard go on to excel in junior and senior high school. While the high school graduation rate on the reservation is 62%, 90% of the students who start at St. Bernard’s go on to finish high school.

The students who have attended and graduated from St. Bernard Mission School have influenced not only the local community by their efforts and leadership but also the State of North Dakota and the entire nation. The Mission School is a valued part of the history of the Standing Rock community.


Copyright 2012 St. Bernard Mission School