Building “Sacred Bridges”

St. Joseph’s Indian School hosts 2019 Mission Education Conference

Mary Balistreri, province healthcare director, participates in the smudging ritual

“Sacred Bridges” was the theme of the 2019 Mission Education conference. Held approximately every three years, Mission Education is a time for employees and other collaborators in SCJ ministry to learn about Fr. Leo John Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, as well as the congregation that carries on his dreams. It is also a time for co-workers across the country to get to know one another and learn how they are a part of the worldwide mission of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This year’s Mission Ed was hosted by St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD, October 13-14.

“We are surrounded by Sacred Bridges but we have to look for them so that we can see them,” said Clare Willrodt, introducing the theme. Clare is director of public relations and outreach at St. Joseph’s.

A “sacred bridge” is a link between cultures, between people, between religions. Located near a bridge across the Missouri River that literally links western and eastern South Dakota, St. Joseph’s itself is a sacred bridge that links Lakota culture and spirituality with many other cultures found in North America.

Mission Education opened with a Sunday liturgy that was immersed in Lakota spirituality. Participants smudged themselves with sage smoke as they walked into Our Lady of the Sioux chapel. A drum group played as student dancers dressed in traditional outfits made their way to the altar. Symbols of the Lakota people surrounded the fully packed chapel. Symbols were found on the walls, the windows and the altar.  The building itself is a sacred bridge between cultures.

A regular component of Mission Ed is an interview with Fr. Dehon. With someone playing the role of the founder, often using his own words from journals and other writings, it is an informal way for participants to learn about Fr. Dehon. This year, the conversation was between “Fr. Dehon” (played by Joe Tyrell, a member of St. Joseph’s staff), and Lucy Looks Twice (brought to life by LaRayne Woster, St. Joe’s director of Native American Studies). Black Elk was a well-known Lakota medicine man and Catholic lay catechist whose cause for sainthood is being promoted. The conversation illuminated many of the commonalities the two had, the bridges that would have easily brought them together –– including a love of horses –– had they met.

Fr. Richard with a student dancer before Mass

The conference was an opportunity participants to learn about a significant ministry of the US Province (St. Joseph’s Indian School and the social and pastoral ministries supported by the SCJs in South Dakota) but also about Native American culture in general,

Many of the participants were from Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Mississippi. There, the second Monday of October means Columbus Day. But in South Dakota, it is celebrated as Native Americans’ Day. At the start of the day, Mission Ed participants joined St. Joseph’s students and staff outside in the “Wisdom Circle” for a Four Directions Prayer Service to honor and celebrate Native American culture.

Following the all-school prayer, participants learned more about Black Elk through a presentation by Dr. Damian Costello, who wrote Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism. He spoke of how Catholicism became an integral part of Black Elk’s life and how Christianity was in harmony with Lakota spirituality.

Throughout the two days Mission Ed participants got a first-hand look at the many programs and components of St. Joseph’s. Of course, there were visits to the classrooms, but there were also tours of the new healthcare center, student homes, the Akta Lakota Museum, and many people’s favorite: the stable that houses the horses used in equine therapy. Visitors learned about the symbolism found in the traditional dress worn by Native American dancers, much of it interwoven with prayer. They tried their hand at making Lakota toys and art (most had more luck in creating the dream catchers than  the string toy) and received archery lessons from St. Joseph’s students. Congratulations to Debbie Carter for scoring a bullseye!

Participants from Sacred Heart Southern Missions pose for a group photo

Through table visits, participants learned about the Sacred Heart Center in Eagle Butte, Native Hope (a Native American storytelling project), the St. Joseph’s Thrift Store, the Lower Brule Pastoral Team and other ministries.

The conference ended with conversations in “Talking Circles.” Following a Native American tradition where a special “talking stick” is passed between people, participants shared their impressions of the two days.

“Being here, I realized how we are all a part of the same mission,” said a member of the SHSM staff. “We are in different places, we are doing different tasks, but in the end, our mission is the same: to continue the mission that Fr. Dehon started.”

“This was like a family reunion,” said another. “I got to meet cousins who I never knew before.”

In his closing comments, Mike Tyrell, president of St. Joseph’s, reminded participants to continue to be “bridge builders,” to continue the Dehonian mission of building sacred bridges between people and cultures.

PHOTOS! Click here or on the camera image to view photos from Mission Education.