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the order to the attention of President Taft, who promptly rescinded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.
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
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
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.
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.