Their presence drew the first Europeans to what is now northern Indiana. They played roles in the founding and growth of parishes and institutions such as what became the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College. They held strong in their faith while facing a lack of priests, prejudice and numerous other obstacles.
In many ways, the strong Catholic community that exists today in Northern Indiana can be traced to the area’s original inhabitants, the people of the Miami and Potawatomi nations of Native Americans. Members of the two nations remain active in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend today.
Their history, culture and contributions, past and present, are remembered each November during Native American Heritage Month.
Today, thousands of Native Americans from many different nations live throughout Indiana. This diocese is the only one in the state, however, where federally recognized Native American nations own land and have a physical presence.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi (“Pokegnek Bodewadmik,” in their language) have their tribal headquarters in Dowagiac, Michigan, about 25 miles north of South Bend. They also own two parcels of land in South Bend: One contains a casino and the other has tribal village housing and services. In addition, the Pokagon Band owns land containing a restored wetland near North Liberty, southwest of South Bend.
The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma (“Kiiloona Myaamiaki,” in their language), which is based in Miami, Oklahoma, owns land on the south side of Fort Wayne.
Some members of both nations, which include about 6,000 people each, continue to maintain the strong Catholic faith that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than three centuries.
The Miami and Potawatomi people have lived in Great Lakes area since about A.D. 1,000, once occupying all the land now in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The Miamis lived mainly in the Fort Wayne area and in the Wabash River valley.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomis lived near the South Bend area, while other Potawatomi groups lived elsewhere in northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
The presence of the Miamis and Potawatomis attracted French explorers, trappers and fur traders, who arrived in the Great Lakes area in the mid- to late 1600s, diocese and other histories said. Some of those expeditions included Jesuit missionaries seeking to share the Catholic faith with native people.
The Miamis and Potawatomis had many similar reasons for their interest in Catholicism.
Before contact with the Jesuits, Miami spirituality didn’t have the concept of God, or an all-powerful Great Spirit, said George Ironstrack, who was born in Fort Wayne, grew up in Chicago and now works as assistant director at the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The center’s mission includes working to recover and preserve Miami language and culture.
Miamis long had believed humans weren’t the center of all things and that other beings could influence a person’s world, Ironstrack said. People could try to develop a relationship with those beings to prevent them from causing trouble in his or her life.
Ironstrack believes Miamis saw French Jesuits’ belief in God as a connection to an other-than-human being who could help or protect them.
He also believes both the Miamis and French wanted to develop alliances, including cooperating in fur trading.
The French fur traders lived among the Miamis and married Miami women, Ironstrack said. Those families spoke both French and the Miami language and practiced Catholicism and Miami spirituality.
The French assimilated into the Miami culture while the English, who came in the 1700s, wanted the Miamis to assimilate into their culture, said Catherine Nagy Mowry, 66, and Dani Tippmann, 61, who are cousins through Miami ancestry and members of St. Patrick Parish in Arcola, west of Fort Wayne.
“The Miami people were people who wanted to get along. They didn’t want war,” Mowry noted.
Joining the Catholic faith was a way of getting along in the new world of which they were now a part, she said. Catholic beliefs about taking care of God’s creation and to avoid greed and taking advantage of others also fit well with existing Miami beliefs.
Once they learned the Miami language, however, Jesuits discovered they had not been as successful as they thought in converting the Miamis to Catholicism, Ironstrack said.
One change did take place: Before contact with Europeans, the Miamis didn’t believe in an all-powerful Great Spirit, he said. After contact, many did believe, even without becoming Christians.
Likewise, many Potawatomis related easily to Catholicism because the Book of Genesis and other books of the Bible told stories similar to their own native beliefs, said Art Morsaw of Hartford, Mich., 75, a Pokagon Band elder and a Catholic deacon.
The Potawatomis long before had sensed an order to nature, and they believed God had set that order, Morsaw said. The Potawatomis also saw themselves only as stewards of the land they lived on, not its owner.
French traders and trappers also began settling near and marrying into Potawatomi families, bringing with them the Catholic faith, James A. Clifton said in the book, “The Pokagons, 1683-1983: Catholic Potawatomi Indians of the St. Joseph River Valley.”
In addition, Potawatomi leaders in the St. Joseph Valley embraced certain aspects of Euro-American culture as a means of influencing settler expansion in that area, said Marcus Winchester, a representative of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
“We choose to negotiate rather than fight,” Winchester said.
After a Baptist missionary failed in his efforts to convert the Potawatomis, village leader Leopold Pokagon, who had been raised with a limited knowledge of the Catholic faith, traveled to Detroit in July 1830 to ask priest Father Gabriel Richard to send a priest to the Potawatomis, Clifton wrote. A month later, Father Stephen T. Badin, the first priest ordained in America, arrived to minister to them.
Father Badin worked well with Pokagon and his community, Winchester said.
Father Badin was assisted by Angelique Campeau, a Potawatomi-speaking lay missionary from Detroit. He bought land adjacent to Pokagon’s village near what is now the Indiana-Michigan state line and by Nov. 21 dedicated a chapel that had been constructed there, Clifton said.
By late 1832 Badin had baptized more than 170 people, Joseph M. White said in the book, “Worthy of the Gospel of Christ: A History of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.”
He reportedly also had begun buying land that eventually totaled 524 acres and would become home to what became the University of Notre Dame, White said. Badin planned to use the land to open an orphanage and school serving all children but which would be partially financed by federal money allocated for the education of Native-American children.
Also in Fort Wayne
In addition to serving the South Bend area, Father Badin’s pastoral work included visits to Fort Wayne and Huntington in the early 1830s.
The Miamis’ relationship with Catholicism deepened with the arrival of Father Julian Benoit in April 1840 to become the second pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Fort Wayne. The parish became the site of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 1860.
The Miamis loved and trusted Father Benoit, numerous newspaper reports and history books said.
The French-born Benoit was “priest, counselor and friend” to the Miamis, The Daily Sentinel said in his obituary on Jan. 27, 1885. “He taught them the way of the righteous, guarded them against the wily ‘traders’ and watched over them with fatherly care.”
Benoit’s responsibilities also included outlying areas. He worked with Catholics in Huntington to build a small log church he dedicated in August 1843, according to a newspaper report on the history of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. The parish was built on land donated by Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville, the leading Miami civil chief at the time and a strong Catholic. Richardville’s son-in-law, Chief Francis LaFontaine, who lived at the Forks of the Wabash, donated land for the parish’s cemetery.
Tending to the flock
With passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. government began trying to force Native-American nations to give up most of their land in eastern states and move to territories in the West. Some Catholic priests opposed removal efforts.
Father Louis Deseille had replaced Father Badin in 1835 in ministry to the Potawatomis. Sympathetic to their hope to stay on their land, he helped them write appeals and letters to government officials, White said in his book.
When an Indian agent from Indiana accused Father Deseille of assisting the Potawatomis avoid removal, the priest invited the agent and his staff to attend all Catholic services Deseille celebrated with his flock, Clifton said. The agent backed off, and the Pokagon Band became known as the “Catholic” group to officials in charge of Indian removal.
Leopold Pokagon used his band’s Catholic identity to add language to the Treaty of Chicago of 1833 that allowed them to stay in Michigan if they moved to land farther north. Unable to find land there, Pokagon used treaty payments he received and proceeds from the sale of land allocated to him by the treaty to buy 874 acres for his people to live on near present-day Dowagiac.
Pokagon Band members settled on the land, known as Silver Creek, while the U.S. government forced nearly 860 other Potawatomis to walk from northern Indiana to a new home in Kansas in 1838. More than 40 tribe members died on the journey, which became known as the Trail of Death.
The trek also took the life of Father Benjamin Marie Petit, who came to serve the Potawatomis after Deseille’s death in 1837, according to White. Devoted to his new flock, Petit agreed when the Potawatomis asked him to accompany them on their removal to Kansas. The priest became ill along the way and died in St. Louis while on his way back to Indiana.
Similarly, the U.S. government forced many members of the Miami nation to move to Kansas in 1846. Families of some tribal leaders were allowed to stay on land given to them in treaty negotiations, and many of those families were Catholic.
Miamis who had to leave traveled by canal boat to Cincinnati and then by boat to St. Louis and the Kansas City, area, from where they traveled by land to their new home, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma said in the publication “Myaamiaki aancihsaaciki: A Cultural Exploration of the Myaamia Removal Route.”
The Miamis reportedly asked Father Benoit to go with them. This area was part of the Diocese of Vincennes at the time, and its leader, Bishop the Right Rev. Celestine de la Hailandiere, didn’t want Benoit to leave his congregation here, Charles Blanchard wrote in “The History of the Catholic Church in Indiana, Volume I.”
Many history books and some newspaper accounts say Father Benoit went with the Miamis and returned home safely. He isn’t mentioned in other reports about the removal, including in letters from the U.S. Army officer in charge of the trip.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Miamis and Potawatomis also had its difficulties.
A story passed down in the family of Miami member Sue Strass, 84, of Huntington, said her great-grandmother, Archangel LaFontaine, used to sit in the front row with all of her children during Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Huntington.
When St. Mary Church in Huntington was being constructed nearby, the German pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul, where Mass was celebrated in German, reportedly told her great-grandmother that all Native Americans and Irish Catholics would have to move to the new church after it opened.
In the late 1830s, two priests from the Diocese of Vincennes allegedly tried to deceive Leopold Pokagon and his wife into signing over ownership of most of their land used by Pokagon Band members moved at Silver Creek, Clifton said. The effort reportedly involved Bishop the Right Rev. Celestine de la Hailandiere.
The Pokagon family later sued and was able to recover their land, he said.
Clifton alleges that University of Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin and members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross also tried to take advantage of the Pokagon Band.
After Leopold Pokagon died in 1841, Sorin reportedly appointed Leopold’s son Peter to serve as Pokagon Band leader, Clifton said. Sorin and his missionaries reportedly wanted to push all of the Catholic Potawatomis into settling on the Silver Creek property.
The missionaries also hoped to gain control of the $2,000 educational fund set up by the Tippecanoe Treaty of 1832 to pay for schooling for Potawatomi children, Clifton said. The funds had been going to a Protestant academy in Louisville. The Holy Cross missionaries wanted the funds directed toward growth of their school, which became Notre Dame, Clifton said.
Sorin and Brother Joseph reportedly later tried to discredit Peter Pokagon and have him removed as a tribal leader, he continued. The missionaries’ efforts contributed to deep divisions within the Potawatomi people.
The relationship today
An active relationship no longer exists between the diocese and either the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma or the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades has honored the historic connections to the Potawatomi nation during homilies Masses marking the 175th anniversary of University of Notre Dame and the 150th anniversary of South Bend. He acknowledged the importance of the Miamis during a Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the dedication of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Late Bishop John M. D’Arcy celebrated a Mass for the Miami people to remember the 150th anniversary of their tribe’s removal to the West, Miami member Catherine Nagy Mowry said. He also invited Miami members to bring up the offertory gifts at a special Mass at Notre Dame in South Bend.
At St. Patrick Parish in Arcola, where several Miami families attend, they have started a tradition of providing gifts such as a pipe and headdress to new pastors, along with an explanation of their significance, said Mowry.
In 2013 the diocesan archives office returned land grant documents to the Miamis that had been found in a safe at St. Mary Parish in Huntington.
Saint Mary’s College now begins meetings with this statement:
“We wish to acknowledge and honor the Native people and their traditional homelands on which we stand.
“We particularly recognize the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Miami, who have been utilizing this land and its resources for many years and continue to do so today.
“With deep gratitude we acknowledge the Native people and their culture within our community as well as acknowledging the land upon which we gather, pray, learn and work.”
Notre Dame also maintains a strong relationship with the Pokagon Band, said Dennis K. Brown, university spokesman.
University officials have regular meetings and other interaction with current and past Pokagon Band leaders, Brown said. A member of the Pokagon Band sat on a university committee that made the recommendation last year on coverings to hide murals of Christopher Columbus painted in the second-floor hallway of the campus’ Main Building.
Looking to the future, Ironstrack sees a potential for cooperation and collaboration with the diocese and Catholic Church.
“What I see in my ancestors is they wanted to be good neighbors,” he said. Their forced removal to the West shattered that relationship.
“We are at a different place today as a tribal nation, where we ask to be treated as neighbors,” he said. “There is a role for churches in that process.”
Miami heritage helps priest open dialogue, connect with those he serves
He had felt drawn to a missionary style of service.
When Father Vincent Wirtner III, CPPS, was ordained a priest in the Missionaries of the Precious Blood order in 2010, he likely also became the first member of the Miami nation of Native Americans to become a Catholic priest.
Wirtner, 57, who was born and raised in Fort Wayne, believes he remains the only priest of Miami heritage, an ancestry that has opened doors for him in his work.
He had a strong faith life growing up, he said. His parents, Vincent and Charlyne, were active at St. Joseph on Brooklyn Avenue in Fort Wayne. Their children attended St. Joseph School and Bishop Luers High School.
“It was a wonderful faith life,” Father Wirtner recalled.
His family didn’t celebrate their Miami heritage as much until an effort began to seek federal recognition for Miami people living in Indiana. Then they could attend an annual pow wow and he started meeting many Miami relatives. He began incorporating Miami culture into his faith life.
After high school, he went into nursing work at St. Joseph and Lutheran hospitals in Fort Wayne. He also served as a youth minister at his parish and then returned to Luers as campus minister in 1999.
“As I started working, I really felt pulled to something else,” he said of his early career.
He had worked with Missionaries of the Precious Blood members at St. Joseph Hospital.
“I really identified with the work they were doing and the kind of work they were doing,” Father Wirtner said.
Conversations with late Bishop John M. D’Arcy and the diocese’s vocation director finally led him to begin Precious Blood formation about age 35, he said.
“It truly was the Holy Spirit working in life appropriately,” he noted.
The formation process includes spending some time in the missions field. He chose to work on the Navajo Nation reservation out West, and returned there to minister as a deacon and after his ordination. His Miami heritage opened doors for him.
“The biggest thing was to get to know the people,” Father Wirtner said. When speaking with a fellow Native American, “they will tell you a little more about the culture, … those things that are important to them, and that’s the Navajo way and the Navajo tradition.”
He built such strong connections that a Navajo deacon and a teen came to his ordination, and the deacon proclaimed the Gospel in English and Navajo.
“It was beautiful,” Father Wirtner said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
He also wore stole created for him by his mother and two other local Miami women, Catherine Nagy Mowry and Katrina Mitten. The colors and design used all carry special meaning in Miami culture.
He wears the stole now in his work as chaplain at Melbourne Central Catholic High School in Melbourne, Fla., which serves a culturally diverse student body.
“It does open up a dialogue (with students) about the culture in our school,” he said.
Father Wirtner also celebrated a Mass each year at the Mihsihkinaahkwa Pow Wow formerly held in Columbia City and has participated in the funerals of a few Miami elders.
His heritage remains an important part of his life and blends well with his Catholic faith.
“My religious community calls me to live a simple life,” he said. “Native Americans try to live a simple life honoring Mother Earth.”
His faith and Miami culture emphasize respect for elders. Father Wirtner also refers to God as God or as the Creator.
“It seems natural to me,” he said. — Kevin Kilbane
Jean Baptiste de Richardville, the great civil chief of the Miami people also known as John B. Richardville, died in 1841. A strong Catholic, he was laid to rest in a burial ground on the site of the present Cathedral Square. Whether he still is there has been the subject of debate.
As part of building the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 1859-60, bodies buried on the grounds reportedly were dug up and moved to a Catholic cemetery opened on the southwest side of the current West Central Neighborhood in Fort Wayne. Some historians said Richardville’s body was not moved, but the monument marking his grave was moved to the new cemetery.
Bodies at that cemetery were supposed to have been moved again to the present Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne after it opened in 1873. Richardville’s monument stands there in Section B, Lots 55-56.
However, the card recording information about that plot doesn’t state that a body has been buried there, said Casey Miller, executive director of Divine Mercy Funeral Home and Catholic Cemetery.
Richardville’s grave likely remains on the Cathedral Square, where a historical marker notes his presence.
— Kevin Kilbane
Ministry to Potawatomis led to renowned universities
Along with Father Stephen Badin buying land in the 1830s near South Bend to open a school and orphanage for Potawatomi children that eventually became the University of Notre Dame, the Potawatomis also played a key role in the founding of what is now Saint Mary’s College.
In 1843, religious women who became known as the Sisters of the Holy Cross arrived from France to assist the Congregation of Holy Cross missionaries working to provide schooling at what would become Notre Dame.
However, the bishop leading Indiana at that time wanted more priests, not more women religious, said Sister Catherine Osimo, CSC, director of Archives for the Congregation of Holy Cross Sisters in Notre Dame. In 1844, though, the bishop for Michigan invited the sisters to move across the state line to what became Bertrand Township in Michigan.
A Potawatomi woman, Madeline Bertrand, and her French husband, Joseph, ran a trading post there, which is near present-day Niles. Madeline gave the sisters a portion of land she owned for use educating children in the area, Sister Catherine said. Because of Madeline’s generosity, Saint Mary’s Academy was founded on the site July 16, 1844.
“The sisters got along really well with the Potawtomis, especially the women,” Sister Catherine said. “Not only did the sisters teach in the school but they visited the sick in the parish. The sisters and the Potawatomi women often sang hymns together.”
In 1855, after a new bishop welcomed their return to Indiana, the sisters moved their school about 8 miles south to property just west of the Notre Dame campus, Sister Catherine said. Saint Mary’s Academy gradually evolved toward higher education and became Saint Mary’s College.
“There was much weeping when the sisters left Bertrand, their first home and first friends,” Sister Catherine said.
— Kevin Kilbane
Catholic faith, Native-American spirituality work together
“I’ve always known I was Miami, and I have always known I was Catholic,” said Dani Tippmann, 61, of Arcola, who attended Catholic grade school and high school.
At home, both aspects of her family’s life were honored, respected and melded together. They honored their Miami heritage by gathering indigenous plants to eat and then praying before they ate them, she recalled.
“Everything worked together,” added Tippmann, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Arcola.
“I think respect is a basic tenet of both Miami culture and Catholic faith,” she said. “We understand the Earth was not made for us. … We try to have respect for future generations.”
Her Miami heritage was always a part of life for Charlyne Wirtner, 80, of Fort Wayne, whose family lived during her early years in the former home of Miami Chief Francis LaFontaine at the Forks of the Wabash area in Huntington. So was her Catholic faith, noting most of her relatives were Catholic for generations.
She and her husband, Vincent, who are members of St. Joseph Parish on Brooklyn Avenue in Fort Wayne, raised their children in the faith and sent them to Catholic schools. She also passed along her Miami heritage, giving each child a Miami name.
Catherine Nagy Mowry, 66, of Fort Wayne grew up knowing her Miami heritage but getting mixed messages about it.
Her grandfather, who was Miami and had endured prejudice, always told his grandchildren not to tell anyone they are Miami. Her grandmother, who wasn’t a Miami member, told them to be proud of who they are and of their Miami heritage.
Miami families were respected at St. Patrick Parish in Arcola, where her family was a member and where she still attends, Mowry said. Nuns teaching at the school were understanding, she noted, when Miami children stood up to oppose use of the term “savages” to describe their ancestors during history lessons.
Today, Mowry blends her Catholic faith and Miami spirituality.
“Christ is my center,” she said.
“I know Christ is for all people,” she explained. “He’s there, and the Holy Spirit is there, and my ancestors are, too.”
She also finds similarities between Miami and Catholic Church views regarding creation.
“We are under the Creator of all things,” she said, “and we give thanks for the gifts we have.”
— Kevin Kilbane
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