Parish documentation is vitally important to our diocese. Recording each detail of our parish life and those happenings of each parish, over the course of history, is to be remembered, celebrated, and honored. Detailed history — such as the works of Mother Drexel, her icon, her legacy and her beautiful monstrance that was gifted to St. Francis Mission — begins at the parish. The archives record and preserve that history. The parish on St. Francis Mission, St. Charles Borromeo, celebrates 100 years of parish life on October 1. Thanks to the parish, the diocesan archives can provide a glimpse of what happened in those 100 plus years. — Kathy Cordes
Ministry at St. Francis Mission began with Fr. Pierre-Jean DeSmet, SJ. In the 1840s, at the invitation of the Flathead Indians in Idaho, he traveled extensively in the northern plains. He brought the Gospel to the Lakota people in what is now western South Dakota. On September 26-27, 1877, Chief Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail), leader of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Reservation) and Chief Red Cloud, leader of the Ogalala (Pine Ridge Reservation), met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and formally requested that the “Black Robes” come to their lands to educate their people. At his urging, Bishop Martin Marty, OSB, Bishop of Dakota Territory, in 1885 invited the Jesuits of the German Province to establish the Mission school. In 1885 Fr. Johann Jutz, SJ, and Br. Ursus Nunlist, SJ, arrived at a site, planned, and laid out the design for the mission buildings. St. Charles Church was dedicated in 1886. The church was a work in progress and on February 16, 1890, Bishop Martin Marty, OSB, came to consecrate the finished product.
On January 20, 1916, a fire of unknown origin began in the stairwell of the girls’ dormitory. Because the mission buildings were all made out of wood and clustered close together the fire spread quickly due to a strong wind. The entire mission, including St. Charles Church, burned. Some pews and a few other items from the church survived the fire.
Though discouraged, the Jesuits did not hesitate to begin the process of rebuilding. Financial assistance was gathered from different parts of the country and once again St. Katharine Drexel generously assisted them. Shortly after the fire, Br. Andrew Hartman, SJ, an architect, was given the responsibility of rebuilding St. Francis Mission and St. Charles Church. He wanted to ensure that fire would not destroy the church again. After receiving training in concrete work in Omaha, Nebraska, he began the rebuilding of St. Charles Church. This time it would be made from concrete.
He taught Lakota people how to work with the material and they began pouring the concrete for the foundation for the 18” thick concrete walls of the church on October 16, 1917. The concrete was mixed by hand and carried in buckets and wheelbarrows. The workers poured concrete into forms that were twelve inches high. After one pouring cured, the forms were moved up. The new St. Charles Church was 60’ x 150’ and reflected the Romanesque style while incorporating Lakota designs as well as European statues and stained glass windows. The workers completed the building on June 10, 1922. On June 11, 1922, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the first Mass was offered to a large crowd who came to the blessing of the new church. On October 25, 1922, Bishop John J. Lawler of Lead consecrated St. Charles Church.
The church features 24 stained glass windows, twenty of which depict the life of Jesus and are used to teach catechism to children. Imported from Germany, the windows cost $270 each. Lakota families and the students of St. Francis Indian Mission School donated the windows as memorials to families and classmates. The round stained glass window depicting a dove representing the Holy Spirit came from the church in Winner.
Lakota artisans built the altars and pews, including a few pews which were saved from the fire in 1916. Lakota students built the current altar, designed by Clarence Packard, a Lakota graduate of the Mission school.
Joseph Lights, a graduate of St. Francis Indian Mission school, painted the mural above the altar in 1923. The painting portrays Our Lady Queen of the Society of Jesus, flanked by St. Michael and St. Gabriel, surrounded by the Jesuit martyrs of North America: St. Isaac Jogues, St. John De Brebeuf and companions. Felix Walking Elk, a Lakota artist, provided the Lakota designs throughout the church.
Beginning in 1922 St. Charles Church served as the mother church for all the missions as well as the parish church for the town of St. Francis and the boarding students at St. Francis Indian Mission School (K-12) who attended daily Mass during the school year.
St. Charles Church received a visit from St. Katharine Drexel shortly after its consecration. Mother Drexel presented the church with a beautiful monstrance which is still used today for benediction and Holy Hours.
From 1922 until 2003 minor repairs were made to the church but no comprehensive renovation was undertaken. In 2003, concern about the deterioration of the artwork in the church and the structural integrity of the stained-glass windows prompted a closer look at the condition of the building. Inadequate lighting, an antiquated heating system and wiring presented a fire hazard that demanded immediate attention. After a detailed analysis, in 2004, it was determined a major restoration of St. Charles Church was needed.
Many years of soot and grime covered the artwork in the church to the point where designs and original colors were hard to see. To restore the art to its original beauty, scrapings of the paint were taken from the walls, the Lakota designs, the eight medallions on the upper walls over the main aisle, and the mural above the main altar in the sanctuary. After faithfully matching the original colors, George Hatcher repainted by hand the entire church interior. This project took six years 2004-2010.
The stained glass windows were breaking under the pressure of sagging lead. Since the glass was museum quality and irreplaceable it was important to give this part of the project immediate attention. All windows were sent to Botti Studio of Architectural Arts in Chicago to be taken apart, cleaned, re-leaded and structurally reinforced. All the statues were repaired and repainted by Botti Studio as well. The floor of the church consisted of four hardwood platforms on which the pews were placed. Three aisles of concrete flooring, painted red, separated the pews and the sanctuary.
The hardwood floor as well as the hardwood flooring of the sanctuary were refurbished and the aisles were covered in a beautiful light colored tile. The restoration of Saint Charles Church was completed in 2013 with the addition of a walk-in baptismal font.
(Historical information provided by St. Francis Mission and Diocesan Archives)