Dismantling the legacy of Fr. De Smet

June 05, 2015
Source: District of the USA

Was Fr. De Smet a "racist" enemy or "true friend" of the American Indians?

Image above: workers remove the bronze statue of Fr. De Smet blessing American Indians—the sculpture is being moved indoors to a museum.

About a week ago, a 60-year old bronze statue of Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet blessing Native American Indians was removed from its prominent outdoor location at the University of St. Louis in St. Louis, MO. This was done under pressure by a group of university faculty members and students who claimed it "...depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy."

To make such an accusation against Fr. De Smet (+1873) betrays a total and willful ignorance of the tireless and holy "Blackrobe" missionary to the America's Indians, who was frequently begged by various tribes to visit and give them the Catholic Faith.

Fr. De Smet was also renowned for his solicitude and defense of the Indians, not only from Protestant missionaries, but also liquor traders and other unscrupulous persons—and as much as it was in his power, even the government. For this and more besides, Fr. De Smet was known among the Indians of his time as the "true friend to the Indians"—an indisputable fact that the university campus activists should take notice of.

Coincidentally, a forthcoming book on the history of the SSPX's St. Mary's College and Academy is about to be published, which contains a brief biography on Fr. De Smet, who visited the Jesuit mission in 1851, which we offer here for the benefit of our readers.

We also recommend this book distributed by Angelus Press: The Life of Father De Smet, S.J.: Apostle of The Rocky Mountains 1801-1873.

Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J. (1801-1873)

Andrew Clarendon

Pierre-Jean De Smet is the most famous of the great Belgian Jesuit missionaries of the New World. He was born in 1801 in Eastern Flanders and entered the Preparatory Seminary while still in Belgium in 1820.  During this time, Fr. Charles Nerinckx visited seeking recruits for the Kentucky mission. De Smet, fired with zeal, joined the group of recruits.

Like Fr. Felix Verreydt, the founder of St. Mary’s, he first studied with the Jesuits in Maryland and finished the novitiate and was ordained at St. Regis Seminary in Florissant, Missouri in 1827. 

Fr. De Smet began missionary work in 1838 as a result of the Council Bluffs treaty in the Iowa Territory. Like his brother missionaries, he deplored the effects of the whisky trade on the natives and attempted to defend them from rapacious settlers. Later, in 1840, he was chosen to accompany a delegation from the Flatheads of the northern Rocky Mountain region who had traveled through the dangerous Sioux lands in order to seek a “blackrobe” instruct and baptize their people. In this way the vast northwestern part of the United States was opened to missionaries.

In his lifetime, Fr. De Smet was responsible for the establishment of many missions in the west; he traveled over 180,000 miles—some estimates are as high as 260,000—and made 19 trans-Atlantic crossings seeking laborers and funds for his missions. After a final voyage of over a year to the northwest filled with many sufferings, Fr. De Smet arrived back in St. Louis, Missouri in 1846 and had to give up his great missionary travels.

In the autumn of 1851, Fr. De Smet, traveling with an Indian deputation en route to Washington D.C., visited St. Mary’s and was edified by the progress of the mission. He particularly noted the Indians’ piety at High Mass. A great banquet was given in his honor.

In his remaining years, Fr. De Smet remained active in caring for the missions he helped establish and fund. Since his integrity was unimpeachable and he had an unparalleled rapport with the tribes, he was often called upon to establish peace between the natives and Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most famously in 1868 he persuaded the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull to accept the Treaty of Fort Laramie. He was also instrumental in establishing peace among warring tribes throughout his life.

He died on May 23, 1873 in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was originally buried with some fellow early Jesuit explorers at St. Stanislaus Seminary near Florissant. In 2003, his remains and those of the other Jesuits were moved to Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, the burial site for many Missouri Province Jesuits.

Another SSPX connection with Fr. De Smet is the Cataldo Pilgrimage to the Old Sacred Heart Indian Mission; see some images from 2014>