“This is holy ground. There is a Dehonian spirit here that has been present for over 100 years. No one leaves here without feeling that spirit. We are united by that spirit in whatever we do, wherever we are.”
– Mike Tyrell, president of St. Joseph’s Indian School
Chamberlain might not seem like an obvious place for a national conference. A town of less than 2,500 people in the middle of South Dakota, the closest airport is at least a two-hour drive away. And the whole state is prone to impassable storms, even in the spring and fall.
But 100 years ago, it also did not seem like an obvious spot for a small religious order from Europe to start a new ministry.
Yet that was the backdrop of this year’s Mission Education Conference hosted by St. Joseph’s Indian School. “Your Kingdom Come ~ Óhiŋniyaŋ (eternally, forever),” celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dehonian ministry in the United States, was the theme of the October 8-9 conference.
On Palm Sunday 1923, Fr. Mathias Fohrman, SCJ, a member of the German Province originally sent to the US on a fundraising mission, celebrated Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Lower Brule. It was the beginning of what was to become a century-plus commitment to the people of the United States. From Lower Brule, Dehonian ministry quickly spread across the Missouri River to Chamberlain, where in 1927, Dehonians purchased the defunct Columbus College to start St. Joseph’s Indian School.
“This is holy ground,” said Mike Tyrell, speaking to the 110 participants at this year’s Mission Education Conference. “There is a Dehonian spirit here that has been present for over 100 years. No one leaves here without feeling that spirit. We are united by that spirit whatever we do, wherever we are.”
Mike and his wife, Kim, first started at St. Joseph’s as houseparents in 1985; he has been president of the Dehonian school since 2014.
Held approximately every three years, Mission Education brings together SCJs, employees and other Dehonian collaborators to learn about the ministries and spirituality of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians), and to simply spend time together in prayer and fellowship, connecting with others carrying on the dreams of Fr. Leo John Dehon. The conferences have been held in Wisconsin and Mississippi, but most often in South Dakota, the birthplace of the US Province.
This year’s gathering opened with a Lakota Mass celebrated with students and staff of St. Joseph’s. Before walking into Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel, Mission Education participants were invited to take part in a Lakota smudging ceremony of purification. Student dancers, dressed in traditional Lakota attire, led the opening procession. A drum circle provided the heartbeat of the gathering.
A skit featuring Fr. Leo John Dehon has become a staple of Mission Education gatherings. This year, the role of Fr. Dehon was played by Joe Tyrell, Director of Mission Integration at St. Joseph’s. He was joined by Dave Meyer, who had the role of Fr. Mathias Fohrman. The storyline was that the two met in heaven and Fr. Mathias had an opportunity to update the founder on the work of the SCJs in South Dakota. In 10 minutes, Mission Education participants got an overview of the challenges of those first years of Dehonian ministry, including stories of SCJs stranded in the snow, fires, illness and financial instability. However, paired alongside these stories – not only during the skit, but throughout the two days of Mission Education – were stories of Dehonians, seemingly against all odds, somehow overcoming the obstacles thrown at them.
Since those earliest days of the SCJ presence, St. Joseph’s Indian School has become a modern educational facility that has expanded its outreach well beyond the classroom, with family counseling, healthcare, social programs, and education in Lakota traditions. During Mission Education, participants visited one of its newest initiatives: the Equine Therapy Program.
“Students have the opportunity to connect with the horses through counseling sessions. Horses are very in-tune to body language — this is beneficial to the students because horses respond at a sacred level. Students feel connected spiritually and have opportunities to overcome challenges through means other than talk therapy,” said Robyn Knecht, Director of Counseling Services.
Mission Education participants also learned about the many other Dehonian ministries in South Dakota. After taking part in an outdoor prayer ceremony for the start of Native American Day on October 9, participants boarded buses and headed through the rolling hills along the Missouri River to visit the site of the first Dehonian ministry in the United States: St. Mary’s Church in Lower Brule.
Actually, they visited the CURRENT site of St. Mary’s. The first church is under the Missouri River, along with the rest of the original town of Lower Brule, following the completion of the Big Bend Dam in 1963. The town was relocated in 1962.
After a brief prayer service that included the singing of a Native Song of Prayer by Sharla Krogman (Native American Studies teacher), the Mission Education group heard from a variety of people, including Larry and Jewel Jandreau. Larry Jandreau is an alumnus of St. Joseph’s who now sits on the school’s Executive Board of Directors; Jewel Jandreau is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribal Council. Larry is also the emergency services director of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
“St. Joseph’s helped my husband learn how to live in the wider world outside of the reservation,” said Jewel. “We now work as a team to help our community.”
On Monday afternoon, the conference ended as it began, in Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel. Among the final speakers was Dr. Paul Monson, Vice President of Intellectual Formation & Academic Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. He grew up in North Dakota, just a few hours north of Chamberlain, and has done extensive study on the history of the Catholic Church in South Dakota, a history that Dehonians inherited – in part – from the Benedictines who served in the area before them.
“This is all very interesting,” he said about the history of Dehonian ministry in South Dakota, “but why come all the way out here to learn about it? Why not read about the history, or see images of it in a video?
“We come here to embody the realities of it… we are here to encounter what or whom we do not know. The best teachers are learners first. We are here to learn. If we serve, we must learn. We must step out of our comfort zones.”
Adveniat Regnum Tuum
Dr. Monson talked about “Adveniat Regnum Tuum,” the Latin phrase for the theme of the conference, and one of the pillars of Dehonian spirituality.
“Dehonian service is not about your will, or my will,” he said. “It is about God’s will.”
“Thy Kingdom Come means a trust in God in good times and in bad,” he continued. “Our service here is not an individual service. Our service, wherever we are, is one as a Dehonian family.”
Following the closing session, Mission Ed participants joined students and staff back in the Wisdom Circle in front of the chapel for traditional dances to celebrate Native American Day.
Early the next day, participants were on the road, back to their local ministries. According to KELOLAND Weather, South Dakota’s first snowstorm of the year was just days away.
“South Dakota is wonderful,” said one participant. “Now time to head home and beat the next storm!”