Italian Jesuits in the American West Brought Religion, Education and More | HistoryNet MENU

Italian Jesuits in the American West Brought Religion, Education and More

By David McCormick
3/1/2017 • Wild West Magazine

They served among various Northwest Indians beginning in the 1840s.

In the 1840s in what would become Montana, Father Anthony Ravalli often rode an Indian pony to reach the places he was needed, even on those days it was necessary to tilt the wide brim on his hat to shield his face from the bitter chinooks sweeping down the Bitterroot Valley. A Jesuit priest from St. Mary’s Mission with skills as a doctor and surgeon, the black-robed figure might on any given day have to amputate a frozen limb or dress a gunshot wound. It didn’t matter to him if his patients were Indian or white, Catholic, Protestant or heathen. Jesuits had operated in the Southwest centuries earlier, but it wasn’t until the mid–19th century that Italian Jesuits, victims of Italian unification driven from their country by nationalists, settled in the Northwest. They left a large footprint, one still visible.

During each wave of political upheaval in Italy in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, government authorities expelled Jesuits, who had long-held hostile attitudes toward the secular ruling powers on the Apennine peninsula. Then in 1870, with the unification of their homeland complete, the Jesuits were ordered from Italy en masse. Over the latter half of the 19th century, the order was banished from such Catholic countries as France, Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala. This phenomenon seems rather curious, but in many Catholic nations at the time, the Jesuits found themselves at odds with Christian theological movements (such as Jansenism), other religious groups and atheists. The Jesuits did, however, find refuge in such Protestant nations as England and the United States. In the U.S. states and territories almost 400 Italian Jesuits, albeit facing some anti-Catholic sentiment, were granted the freedom to spread the order’s religious message by establishing missions and schools.

Father Gregory Mengarini arrived in the Bitterroot in September 1841 with other Jesuits under the leadership of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, who was born in what would become Belgium. They harvested logs from riverside cottonwood groves and carved out St. Mary’s Mission, the first permanent settlement in Montana (west of present-day Stevensville). It was there the Salish (aka Flathead) Indians, who were brought Catholicism, learned to farm and raise livestock; using a hot iron, they seared St. Mary’s “Cross on a Hill” brand—the first brand used in Montana—onto their cattle.

Among Mengarini’s recruits was Father Ravalli, who was born in Ferrara, Italy, and had first served at missions in what would become Oregon and Washington territories. Ravalli arrived at St. Mary’s in 1845 and is considered Montana’s first physician and pharmacist. He also built the area’s first sawmill and gristmill. During Ravalli’s five years at the mission the settlement came under increasing harassment from the Salish peoples’ deadly foes, the Blackfeet. Because of the Blackfeet’s mounting aggression, the Jesuits reluctantly closed the mission in 1850, selling the buildings to former Army sutler John Owen, who opened the Fort Owen trading post. But Ravalli and the Jesuits would be back.

Soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, feverish excitement gripped California and the nation. Italian Jesuit superior Father Michael Accolti, who had come to Oregon in 1844 to work with the Indians there, now set his sights on the gold camps to his south. He would establish the California Province of Jesuits. In 1849 he and Father John Nobili started a school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Under Accolti’s direction, Nobili posited the cornerstone for Santa Clara College (now university) in 1851. Three years later Father Anthony Maraschi, born in Piedmont, Italy, arrived in San Francisco after serving in the East. Maraschi laid the groundwork amid sand dunes south of Market Street for St. Ignatius Academy (the present-day University of San Francisco).

In 1854 Ravalli was sent to what would become northern Idaho, placed in charge of Sacred Heart Mission among the Skitswish (or Coeur d’Alene) Indians. But in 1866, as the danger from hostile Blackfeet subsided in the Bitterroot Valley, Father Joseph Giorda, superior for the Rocky Mountain region, recalled Ravalli to reestablish St. Mary’s Mission about a mile south of Fort Owen. But life at St Mary’s remained precarious. During the summer of 1869, as Giorda sat working at his desk, a bullet shattered the window, startling the priest. When he rose to warn Ravalli, another shot whizzed past. Giorda only just made out a pair of drunken Pend d’Oreilles (aka Kalispel) Indians galloping off. Regardless, the new St. Mary’s became the Jesuit mission headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Province. St. Mary’s parish remains a place of celebration for both Indians and whites.

St . Mary’s was hardly the only place in the Montana region where the Jesuits were active. In the early 1860s the discovery of gold at Bannack, Gold Creek and AlderGulch (Virginia City) attracted all types of fortune seekers, many of whom were ill-prepared for the rugged terrain and bitter winters. With boundless energy

the Jesuits ministered to their flock, which sometimes included hard cases who faced a “hemp stretching.” On one sick call Father Urban Grassi made a 500-mile journey on horseback from his base at St. Peter’s Mission (near present-day Ulm, Mont.). In the late 1880s Grassi was at the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon, where he built a Catholic school that was going strong when he died in 1890. Thirty years earlier Father Joseph Cataldo, a Sicilian, had arrived in the new state of Oregon to minister to the Umatilla Indians.

Cataldo would also serve in Washington and Idaho. In July 1873, on behalf of the Coeur d’Alene Indians, Cataldo helped broker an agreement between the tribe and the U.S. government over land rights. The next year in Idaho Territory, over Protestant opposition, he established St. Joseph’s Mission (aka the Slickpoo Mission), the first Roman Catholic mission to serve the Nez Perce Indians. It would remain open until 1958. The priest gained the tribe’s trust by learning their language. In 1877 Cataldo labored to prevent hostilities between peaceful Nez Perces at the mission and white settlers in the area during a time of unrest when other Nez Perces, including Chief Joseph, broke the peace. In 1887, on a parcel of land he bought near what would become downtown Spokane, Wash., he established a school, Gonzaga College (now university) to serve the growing number of Catholic families. Also in 1877 the Jesuits established a school for Latinos in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, later relocated to Denver as Regis College (now university).

Without question education was an important part of the Italian Jesuits’ mission in the American West. Many of the priests had attended European academic institutions, and among them were scientists, mathematicians, writers and orators. In their educational endeavors the Jesuits sometimes received support from unlikely sources. As the 55th U.S. Congress sat in session in the late 19th century, members debated part of an appropriations bill that sought to abolish sectarian Indian schools. Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri admitted to having had earlier prejudices against the Jesuits, voicing tongue in cheek the common belief that “Jesuits have horns and hoofs and tails.” But having recently traveled through Utah, Montana and Wyoming to visit Indian schools—those run by the government and those run by the Jesuits—he proclaimed, “I did not see…a single school that was doing any educational work worthy the name of educational work unless it was under the control of the Jesuits.” Vest believed the Indians were drawn to the ceremony of the

Catholic Church and benefited from the hands-on education provided by the well-educated Jesuits.

But the Jesuits had more than just ceremony and education going for them. The priests were at ease sharing meals of dried buffalo meat, roots and berries with their Indian charges, who did not generally associate the “Black Robes” with the United States and its repressive policies toward Indians. “The Jesuits offered great appeal to the Indian because they had ‘ambiguous national allegiances,’” one historian suggested. Song also factored into the Jesuits’ success. Singing was an important part of Indian culture in the North west. According to Jesuit Father Philip Rappagliosi, when the Indians heard Gregorian chants adapted to their own hymns, they were “in ecstasy.” As a rule among the Indians the Jesuits were more popular than their Protestant counterparts. But even with the good relations between Indians and Jesu its, trouble did erupt at times. For instance, in 1862 a war party of Gros Ventres, angry about horses allegedly stolen by white settlers, held Father Giorda captive for nearly a month before releasing him unharmed.

The Jesuits, scholarly yet down to earth, were pioneers . They explored and mapped regions of the American West. They pre served Indian languages in dictionaries and grammar books. They established churches, schools and hospitals. They laid the foundations for communities throughout the Northwest, and fittingly the names of pioneering Italian Jesuits remain attached to some of those, including DeSmet, S.D.; Cataldo, Idaho; and Ravalli County in Montana.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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