‘Black Elk’s hunger and thirst for holiness can inspire us’

Bishop Peter Muhich stands at the grave of Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk. A memorial Mass for Black Elk was held at St. Agnes Church, Manderson, Aug. 17. It has been four years since the diocese opened the cause for canonization. (Courtesy photo)

Homily August 17 for
Black Elk Memorial Mass
+August 17, 1950


“Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

These words of Our Lord from the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel are a fitting Scripture passage for our Memorial Mass today because they describe this holy man, this holy soul.

Black Elk, baptized “Nicholas’” as you know perhaps better than I, is an authentic witness to the spiritual depth of Lakota culture and an authentic witness to Jesus Christ. He bridges both the Lakota and the Catholic in a beautiful and inspiring way that helps up appreciate how God is present in Lakota culture and how Lakota culture can enrich the church.

St. John’s vision in our first reading from the Book of Revelation is of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue” standing before the throne and the Lamb in company with all the angels singing “salvation comes from our God/Ancient One and from the Lamb.” With the elders the multitude exclaims, “Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power and might to God forever and ever.” I can say that we hear these words with a distinctly Lakota voice today as we remember the remarkable life of Nicholas Black Elk in this celebration of the Eucharist — the church’s most sublime act of prayer that joins us to that worship of the Ancient One and the Lamb around the throne in heaven in John’s vision.

The church needs Black Elk’s witness and indigenous voice now more than ever, in a world where suspicion and polarization are on the increase. In his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti our Holy Father, Pope Francis, invites us to “dream as a single human family, as fellow travelers, as children of the same earth which is our common home, for we are all brothers and sisters.” I echo his words today: let us dream with Nicholas Black Elk, the great Lakota mystic, of a way beyond the sins of our past (which we must be accountable for) and the prejudices which we still carry with us; let us dream of a time of purification and healing that can free us to walk the good red road hand in hand.

For, as our second reading from the first Letter of John says so simply and profoundly, “we are God’s children” destined to “be like him who is goodness, truth and beauty itself.”

Nicholas Black Elk’s poverty of spirit reminds us that every breath we take, and every moment of our lives is a gift and that we should not only be grateful but generous, imitating the Giver of every good gift. Black Elk’s hunger and thirst for holiness can inspire us to yearn for a closer friendship with God, that always brings with it a closer friendship with each other.

As you know, Nicholas Black Elk’s cause is making progress in Rome. We have heard through the good auspices of the Jesuit Fathers and Brothers that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has received all the necessary materials put together by our diocesan committee and that they are now being examined and studied. We have heard that Pope Francis is aware of this cause which is consoling as we continue to pray for Nicholas’ beatification and ultimate canonization.

Please join me in not only praying for Black Elk’s cause but in letting him and his unique life-story touch our hearts and enlighten our minds.


Let me close by using the last section of Pope Francis’ prayer at the end of Fratelli Tutti (We Are All Brothers and Sisters):

“Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important, and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves.” Amen

Nicholas Black Elk, Pray or us!

+ Bishop Peter



Diocesan Directory

WRC e-Editon February 2021

Chancellor Margaret Simonson retires

In the Fall of 1998, at her Office in the Douglas School District, Margaret Simonson was phoned by then-Vicar General, Msgr. Michael Woster. He shared with her that the chancellor position was open and asked if she was interested in being considered for it. After a long pause, she asked, “What is a chancellor?”

He persuaded her to meet with him and then subsequently with  then-Bishop Blase Cupich. That is when the new adventure began: A brand new bishop and a rookie chancellor. “We learned a lot together in those early years and I will always be grateful that Bishop Cupich taught me the ropes of what a chancellor does”, said Simonson.

Before she was appointed chancellor on Dec. 1, 1998, “I was active at the Cathedral, I trained lectors and served on the parish and diocesan liturgy committees. I was also in the lay ministry program. I was pretty well involved in my faith journey.”

Officially, she joined the staff, as chancellor, but over the years her job changed. “I took on the roles of chief of staff, director of safe environment and director of communications.”

A few years later when the Clergy sexual abuse scandal hit in the United States and the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was created, she was charged with maintaining all pertinent files. In 2004 the Diocese of Rapid City took part in the independent John Jay study, which set out to quantify clergy sexual misconduct in the United States.

“That process taught me that priests are human beings and can be prone to sin just like the rest of us. I learned to separate the person from the action and still respect the person,” Simonson said.

In 2013, Bishop Robert Gruss nominated Simonson for appointment to the National Advisory Council of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. “I was appointed in March 2013. I was elected to the executive board as chair-elect in 2016 and moved on to chair in 2017.

“It was a very rewarding experience,” said Simonson. “By coincidence, it was during my term on the NAC board that Bishop Gruss presented the request to open the process for the Cause for the Canonization of Nicholas Black Elk. This required the approval of the body of bishops.”

Shortly after the Terra Sancta Retreat Center opened in 2012, the diocesan staff was split between the Chancery which consisted of two small buildings behind the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and unused office space at Terra Sancta. The bishop’s office, administration, development, finance and communications, remained at 606 Cathedral Drive and the tribunal, archives, youth and young adult, family life ministries, native ministries, vocations, and faith formation moved to Terra Sancta.

Over the years several positions were added to the Chancery. A part-time coordinator was hired to implement the safe environment program throughout the diocese. Then a part-time grant writer was hired. With small parishes having a hard time finding bookkeepers, the Chancery added a parish accounting department, which required additional office space.

“To serve the whole diocese, we needed a building where we could house all employees under one roof. We just needed more space and there was nowhere to expand,” she said.

In 2020 the Chancery was moved to a remodeled bank building in downtown Rapid City, “Now we have space with our staff under one roof and we have ample room for storage. In addition, we are greatly blessed to have a chapel in our new location,” said Simonson.

Working for the church has given her the opportunity of living the Gospel 24/7. “Our faith life affects everything we do and enriches our work. I have come to a much deeper appreciation of our bishops, priests and religious and just how precious their vocations are. We need to continue to pray for them as they live out their vocations.”

Simonson has great memories of working with Bishop Cupich and the team for the We Walk by Faith appeal. “We went out into the parishes so many times and met with parish leaders. I think that is why the appeal was so successful.” She said renovating the former Benedictine convent and adding the wall of donors was an exciting and happy time for her.

Simonson recalled when Bishop Cupich led a diocesan pilgrimage to Assisi, Siena and Rome. “It was a great honor to have a group picture taken with Pope John Paul II in celebration of our diocesan centennial.”

In 2011 when Bishop Gruss arrived in the diocese, before his episcopal ordination, “He walked into my office and saw all my Green Bay Packers stuff and said, ‘I think we are going to get along just fine.’

“In 2014, Bishop Gruss led a wonderful pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome and so I hit up my piggy bank once again to participate. To walk where Jesus walked was an awe-inspiring experience,” she said.

“Bishop Peter Muhich is now the new shepherd of the Diocese of Rapid City. I find him to be a very pastoral and faith-filled man who is very organized. He has had an extraordinary first year here in western South Dakota and has handled challenges very well. The Lord always seems to send us the person we need,” said Simonson.

Simonson concluded, “Although I will miss the Chancery, my co-workers and the people we serve, it’s time for the next adventure. Lead me, Lord!”

Relatives helped Dcn. Ben Black Bear, Jr. become a strong Catholic

Deacon Ben Black Bear and his wife Arlene

By Laurie Hallstrom

Deacon Ben Black Bear, Jr., will celebrate his 45th anniversary of ordination next month. He was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Bishop Harold J. Dimmerling in St. Charles Church at St. Francis Mission, June 19, 1976.

He has been married to his wife, Arlene D. Crow Eagle Black Bear for 53 years. They have five daughters and four sons.

“I live in Two Strike Community, north of St. Francis,” he said. My parents were the late Iva Lone Dog Black Bear and Ben Black Bear, Sr. Both were strong Catholics all their lives. Also, they were traditional Lakota. They barely spoke Englishand they had a rough life trying to find jobs. They made sure that their children were educated in a Catholic school. Putting their children in a Catholic Boarding School was like killing two birds with one stone — the children were educated and raised Catholic. Ben and Iva taught their children Lakota Language, culture and tradition by example,” he said.

Deacon Ben graduated from St. Francis Mission Catholic Boarding School. After graduation he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from the University of S.D., Vermillion.

“I have worked in a wide variety of jobs over the years. Such is the life of a reservation Indian. Most of the time I worked as a teacher of my native language, Lakhóta. I was Director of Indian Studies at Sinte Gleska University (in Mission) shortly after it started. I became Secretary of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and was elected Vice-Chairman of the Tribe for two terms. I was elected Chair of the Board of Tribal Land Enterprise and Executive Director of the same organization for 13 years. I was on the board for 18 years,” said Deacon Ben.

As a high school student, he knew he wanted to do something that was helpful to the Lakota People. Lakota culture emphasizes the community over the individual. “I finally settled on spreading the Catholic faith to the Lakota. I didn’t know at the time, how I would do that, but I figured I’d find a way later,” he said.

He has had many grandfathers, uncles,  grandmothers, and aunts who were medicine women/men, or Catholic leaders. One uncle was a WWII veteran and an Episcopal minister. Another uncle worked as a Catholic Catechist.

“I grew up hearing stories, especially from my mother. One was about the Wounded Knee Massacre. Apparently one of my grandmothers, a relative of Chief High Hawk, was killed at Wounded Knee. She is buried there in the mass grave. Chief High Hawk was my mother’s grandfather.  He fought the 7th Cavalry after the Wounded Knee Massacre. He became a Catholic right before he died. That influenced my grandmother and mother to become strong Catholics all their lives.

“My father’s grandfather, Hophéphe (Sharpfish), was baptized a Catholic in old age along with my grandmother. My grandfather Mato Sápa (Black Bear), a Heyókha medicine man, was Catholic and also my grandmother and my father were Catholic. All that influenced me to try to be a strong Catholic. My grandfather, Black Bear, also worked as a catechist,” he said.

Both the Sharpfish and Black Bear families were very active in the St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Societies over the years. They were elected officers of the societies or did other work in the activities of the societies.

The Lay Ministry program was started by the Jesuits at St. Francis. “I joined that initially. Later, when the diaconate program was begun, and I started that training.  Most of my teachers were Jesuits that I knew from the school,” he said.

Three of the men he trained in the diaconate program were ordained before Deacon Black Bear — two of those were also Lakota.

In the diaconate training program he learned many things about the Catholic Church — history, theology, Christology, sacraments, moral theology, and liturgy. “One of the funny things I learned was how to tie a cincture on the alb. Priests had a fancy way of tying the long cincture. So, when I got a shorter rope like a cincture I asked one of the Jesuits how to tie it. He tied it in a square knot. ‘Oh!’ I thought tying cinctures was in the rubrics,” he said.

He was assigned to the St. Charles Parish in St. Francis. He also worked at the other parishes occasionally — Rosebud, Parmelee,  and Mission. “I conducted wakes and funerals all over the Rosebud Reservation including Mellette, Tripp and Gregory Counties. I was also active in the St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Societies until the 1980s. I was a member in the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Circles,” said Deacon Ben.

He officiated at weddings and baptisms. “I still preach once a month at St. Charles Church,” he said.

“During the 1980s I was working with a young man on the Black Hills issue. Right after the Black Hills Court case was over with in 1980, we started a Black Hills Steering Committee to try to get back some of the Blacks Hills lands returned to the Lakota through Congressional Legislation.

“The man I worked with is the one who actually made the suggestion that the Rapid City Diocese should have an Office of Native Concerns because the West River

d­iocese had five Lakota Reservations on it and most of them were Catholics,” said Deacon Ben.

A study determined that 40% of Catholics in the West River area were Lakota. Bishop Charles Chaput established the Office of Native Concerns so that the bishop would have a program to reach the Lakota in the diocese. It has since been renamed Native Ministry.

“This happened in 1990. That was the Year of Reconciliation for South Dakota and it was the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. I was appointed the first Director of the Office of Native Concerns. I worked as liaison to the Lakota people for the bishop.

“After working for the bishop I went back to the reservation and became Director of the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum at St. Francis Mission. I took care of the exhibits and the collection for one year,” he said.

After 25 years he resigned from working for the tribe. Then, he was hired at St. Francis Mission as the Lakota Studies expert.

“I work with everything that has to do with the Lakota Language. I translate prayers, preach in Lakota, teach in Lakota.

“When St. Francis Mission started Sápa Ún Academy, a Catholic school for elementary students, I started teaching the Lakhóta Language at that school. I really enjoyed teaching those little children. I think they enjoyed learning Lakhóta. At their end of the school program they put on some Lakota performances which surprised me quite a bit because they did it on their own. I didn’t tell them to do it or coach them. It was all on their own initiative.

Anyone who has served in ministry knows there is not a lot of feedback. “One time somebody called me up and said, ‘your preaching has turned me back to the Catholic faith.’  Just that short statement put me in seventh heaven. God is working through me. I am not changing the world, God is, through me,” he said.

One of his biggest challenges has been learning to read and write in his native language.  “Even though I spoke Lakhóta, I had to learn a lot in becoming literate in Lakhóta.  I had to learn how to translate and produce material in the language. All this involved learning on my own, and that was the most challenging,” he said.

“I’m almost finished translating St. John’s Gospel to Lakhóta. As soon as I finish, I will retype St. Luke’s Gospel for checking. Then I will start on St. Mark’s Gospel. I’m anxious to get to the Epistles and Acts of the Apostles.  I hope I stay above ground until I can get there,” he concluded.

Deacon Ben Black Bear and his wife Arlene have nine grown children (Back row) Ben III, Mervin, Bruce, Bernard.  (Front row) Berlene, Benita, Mary, Michelle, Manette. 

Totus Tuus Vocations Camps — ‘I am totally yours’

Erin Lefluer (third from left) at Totus Tuus Girls Camp is 2004. (Courtesy photo)

By Jacques Daniel
Guest Columnist & Director of Youth and Youth Adults

On an October day in 1978, the world held its breath, waiting. The Chair of St. Peter was vacant. Who would be the next to steer the bark of St. Peter? It was a surprise when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was named — the first Pole to serve as the Bishop of Rome. He took the name John Paul II and chose for his papal motto Totus Tuus. Translated from Latin, it means Totally Yours. His love for Mary and reading of DeMontfort’s “True Devotion to Mary” inspired this motto.

St. John Paul II’s life, his priesthood and now his papacy followed this complete surrender of self to Jesus through Mary. He took to heart and put into practice Mary’s last recorded words in scripture, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

The Diocese of Rapid City’s Totus Tuus summer vocations camp was born out of this same zeal and inspired by this holy pope. Now, twenty-five plus years in, surviving many moves, much growth and even a global pandemic, Totus Tuus continues to form our youth and transform our diocese and beyond. The camps — one for boys and one for girls — span two weeks during the beautiful Black Hills summers. Boys camp is run by seminarians and priests — a number of the priests now being camp alumni. Often, the testimonies they and the seminarians share with the middle and high school boys include a story or two of hearing the Lord at camp. The girls camp is run by religious sisters from around the country, sent here to teach and play and sing by their generous communities. The same thing holds true for the increasing number of religious sisters who come back and now can say, “I was a camper just like you!”

The time spent by our priests, seminarians and visiting sisters in games, in prayer, in adoration, and recreation provides a joyous example to the youth of what a life abandoned to Mary and lives for the Lord truly looks like. It challenges them to consider, What is it the Lord is calling you to? How can you be totally His?

After all these years of camp — countless hours playing and perspiring and praying — we are experiencing a harvest of faithful Catholics directly impacted by the experience of Totus Tuus. Yes, we have ordained men in the diocese, shepherding their sheep and fathering their spiritual children. We also have consecrated women, giving their lives to the mission of the gospel, whose hearts were awakened to the call through camp. But most prolific are the faithful families springing up, living out the call to be “Totally Yours” in their homes, workplaces and passing it on to their children.

Erin Litt (maiden name Lafleur) spent her time as a young adult assisting with camp from 2003-2006. Reflecting on her time at camp she shared: “When I think back to the summer weeks I spent at Totus Tuus, I see it now as the moment that I first understood that God had a particular plan for my life. The incredible combination of time spent with religious sisters — shared meals, insightful talks, hilarious games, and deep conversation, and time spent in prayer — Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass, and Eucharistic Adoration — primed my heart to truly seek where the Lord was leading me. To share a summer camp with religious sisters who faithfully and joyfully lived out their religious vocations was an opportunity for me to say ‘Is this what you might want for me, Lord?’ Even though God didn’t call me to consecrated life — the time spent at camp helped me to say to the Lord ‘I am totally yours’ which led me to serving as a FOCUS missionary, and then to the vocation of marriage.”

As we head in to our 27th year we want to make Totus Tuus available to every youth in our diocese! We offer this camp to families at a fraction of the cost it requires to run it. We hope this year to invite generous donors to be part of the Totus Tuus Mary Magdalene Sponsorship program. Sponsorships can help us to take care of sister’s flights, lodging, and food while they are here, help us in defraying the cost to bus youth for our lake day, etc.

If you feel as if God might be calling you to say “Lord, I am totally yours” in helping sponsor the Totus Tuus camps contact Jacques Daniel at jdaniel@ diorc.org or 605-343-3541 or visit the website at: www.TotusTuus21.com.