In 1916, with a donation of $750 from a woman named Elizabeth, a frame church was built called St. Elizabeth. The church was built next to a meetinghouse that previously served as the church. Parishioners traveled by horse and wagon and camped the night before and to attend the monthly 8 a.m., Mass and breakfast.
The following year, strong winds blew so hard the church was blown part way off its foundation but left the church intact — even the statue of the Sacred Heart did not move.
By 1962, the church was too small for the congregation. The building was moved north of the new highway, and was used as a meeting hall. St. Anne Church from Red Bear Camp was moved 24 miles and placed next to the St. Elizabeth Church meeting hall. In order to move St. Anne Church, the tower had to be removed. The inside of the church was torn out including the high peaked roof and choir loft leaving only the outside shell. Local Lakota families did the work — adding sheet rock on the walls and ceiling and constructing a flat 11-foot ceiling. Due to the narrowness of the church, the altar was placed in the center against the sidewall with the pews facing each other on each side allowing everyone to see what was happening on the altar.
The paintings on the inside of the church were Lakota Catholic. The tipi told the story of creation with night and day, rain and snow, and rainbow. The thunderbolts gave power to the thunderbird for war and peace symbolized with the arrowhead and pine bough. The buffalo was the Indian’s way of life giving food, implements, weapons clothes and coverings for tents. The horse depicted their transportation. Man alone is missing.
Another image was the water bird. The bird comes down through the black chaos and the water to scoop up the earth to take it to the Great Spirit — man made out of the slime of the earth. The story represents God the Father. A cross represents God the Son. The twelve tongues of fire represents the Holy Spirit. The Blessed Trinity is in the work of creation, redemption and sanctification.
A parishioner tanned a deer hide for the antependium, and also did the beadwork on the antependium with the words WAKAN (Holy), and the white elk skin tabernacle veil with beaded trim design.
Other additions included a steeple in 1983, and in 1985 a parish hall was built called St. Elizabeth Hall dedicated to the memory of the St. Mary and St. Joseph societies.
In 1999 a tornado destroyed the church, meeting hall, and trailers for the sisters and brothers living there and serving the church. Shortly after the tragedy, then-Bishop Blase Cupich sent a letter to all parishes in the diocese asking that a special collection be taken up to help rebuild.
“We want to do everything we can to help, but also we want to give assurance of our solidarity with the people of Oglala as they rebuild their parish and community,” he said in the letter to all parishes. “The hearts of the people of the entire diocese go out to all those at Oglala.”
Br. Denny Hall was the first building re-built with the help of the Mennonite Church. This building served as a place of worship and meeting hall until the church and Br. Rene Hall were built. Funds for the new parish included a grant from the Catholic Extension and a check from the diocesan collection for $80,653.42.
Parishioners were part of the designing and planning of the church. The circular shape for the Circle of Life — windows facing the east to greet the day and windows facing the cemetery where their ancestors are buried — are just a few of the elements in the present church.
A few items survived the tornado: the deer hide antependium was badly water damaged, the beadwork was cut off and sewed onto new hide, and the altar remains the same. A four-and-a-half foot wood carving of the Holy Family with native features, which was just 6 years old, also survived the devastation. Two years later, on June 2, 2001, Bishop Cupich dedicated the new parish.
On September 18, parishioners celebrated the 100th anniversary of the church with a blessing, prayer and song at the former site, followed by a short walk to the new church to continue the Sunday Mass ending with a final prayer and blessing outside. Fathers Tom Lawler, SJ, (Provincial Superior of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus), Joseph Daoust, SJ, (Sacramental Priest) and George Winzenburg, SJ, (president of Red Cloud Indian School) were the concelebrants. Three elders who had prayed in the old St. Elizabeth Church, Elizabeth Makes Him First, Mary Merrival, and Catherine Looking Elk brought up the gifts at Mass.
(Sr. Barbara Bogenschutz, OP, Parish Life Coordinator, contributed to this article)
Featured photo: The centennial celebration included outdoor prayer. (Photo courtesy Ryan Hauck, Red Cloud Indian School)