Black Robe- Father Steven Beatty
I saw it at a book sale. It was an old cloth-bound hardback, frayed around the edges but certainly good for dozens more readings, and the title practically jumped off the spine at me: Black Robe by John Upton Terrell. Best book-sale find ever? I paid a whole dollar and brought it home. Excited, I settled my new find on prime bookshelf real estate, flanked by illustrious neighbors. Then I forgot about it for like three years. Don’t judge, you’ve done it too!
Well, I’m finally reading Black Robe. It turns out not to be about the North American martyrs we honor so much at Camp Ondessonk. It’s subject is Father Pierre Jean De Smet, who was a missionary much later than them in the 1800’s. Maybe you’ve seen the name “De Smet” here and there, especially around St. Louis.
Here’s the first thing that grabbed me: on the first few pages, as the author describes Fr. De Smet’s first journey into the American West, I was shocked to see Shawneetown, Illinois described as his point of departure from the Ohio River. That’s where I live. From Shawneetown he walked overland to St. Louis, which means he was certainly within a day’s journey of Camp Ondessonk! We had an actual Black Robe traipsing right through the Shawnee.
Like St. Isaac Jogues and company, Fr. De Smet encountered people of all kinds. “The Huron were like men everywhere” – ring a bell? From barbaric human sacrifice to heroic selflessness, the native nations displayed all the variety of humanity. Fr. De Smet shuddered at some of the things he witnessed and admired others, but his harsh judgments seemed always reserved for the European settlers. He was crushed to see treaties broken, laws unenforced, and peace trampled over and again. It’s a sad and familiar story, one that need not be rehearsed here.
But here’s the counterpoint: the relationship between the native people and Fr. De Smet himself was truly extraordinary. He brought nothing of great worldly value, but only a generous spirit and the Gospel. He really believed that the Gospel was good news for every man and woman, and he spent himself to exhaustion introducing people to Christ. Unlike so many of the white settlers, he also lived the Gospel. He could go into a war council just as bloody vengeance seemed inevitable, and leave the would-be killers smoking together. He could ride out to meet a band of Sioux, assured by white and native people alike that it was suicide, and find himself embraced and taken in for a meal. Stories like this abound where Fr. De Smet is involved. His closest friends and fondest lodgings were among the Flathead in the Bitter Root Mountains, and the love they returned him is moving and remarkable.
Many of his travels have a storybook feel. The author, Terrell, is a careful historian who conscientiously warns the reader when his sources might be sketchy. If it weren’t for that, I’d have a hard time believing some of this! Fr. De Smet actually discovered the extraordinary Alder Gulch gold strike in Montana, but he kept it a careful secret. He knew what would happen to the natives there when the gold was discovered. He knew that day would come sooner or later, but he wasn’t going to be the one who brought it about. How many people do you know who would walk away from a fortune, a massive fortune, without taking a single pebble that might give away the secret?
There are lessons beyond number that I’m taking away from this great read, but there’s also one haunting question that I can’t shake: what if there had been more Fr. De Smets? What if the Europeans had all been so respectful, and full of love, and brave, and peace-loving, and… Christian? The haunting thing about this story, to me, is its inescapable and sorrowful invocation of what might have been. Even stronger, though, is the inspiring testament to what can happen when courage and love burn in a great heart.
I’ll leave it in the staff lounge. Maybe someone else will see the title Black Robe and have a sudden gleam in their eye.
Father Steven Beatty