Terry Witherell
January 28, 2015

When we arrived last week at St. Mary’s Mission School, at Red Lake Reservation, the new school year had just begun. St. Mary’s Mission church and school are located on the Red Lake Ojibwa Reservation, in northern Minnesota. The reservation is part of the Crookston diocese, and Catholic Extension donors have been supporting the mission there for many decades. On this reservation there is a 50% unemployment rate, and most people live in poverty.

The 'smudging' ritual.

A student from each of the grades, kindergarten through grade 6, was there to greet us. They each took one of us to their classroom, where we participated in an ancient Native American tradition known as “smudging”. According to Michael Fairbanks, the elder who performed the ritual, smudging is an ancient tradition for native people, a form of prayer and blessing; the start of the school year was a perfect time to perform this ritual. When Michael came into each classroom with Fr. Jerry Rogers, St. Mary’s parish priest, he carried a large shell and an eagle feather. In the shell was burning a combination of sacred herbs.  As we all stood quietly in a circle, Michael used the feather to waft the smoke and to bless the room, and then went to each person and had us wave the smoke over our heads as a blessing.

Everyone then proceeded to the school auditorium, where Fr. Jerry led us in a prayer service. The theme of the readings of the day, and the music, was that “Jesus is our rock.” In reference to the hurricane which had just hit Louisiana, Fr. Jerry showed the children what would happen in a storm if their house was built on sand, by dropping a large slate onto a pile of sand and flattening it. He then told the children that when our house, or our faith, is built on the rock of Jesus, we stand firm. He reminded them of the sign at the front door of the school: “Be it known to all who enter here, that Christ is the reason for this school.”

Fr. Jerry Rodgers speaking to the children of St. Mary's Mission School.

Fr. Jerry came to Red Lake in 2009, just after the Benedictine sisters made the painful decision that their order could no longer remain at Red Lake, after over 100 years of ministry there. He was joined by Sr. Patrice, the pastoral associate, and Patty, a social worker, who had both worked with Fr. Jerry in his former parish. Catholic Extension supports the salaries of both women.

Fr. Jerry, Sr. Patrice, and Patty are modest about the many things they do on the reservation, including working in the school, doing outreach in the community, and helping mothers with nutritious meal planning. There is a thrift store in the basement of the parish house; it is the only store on the reservation. As Sr. Patrice said, “Our real ministry is in our presence.” Fr. Jerry added, “We try to make sure that every child who comes to school knows how important they are to us, that our school wouldn’t be the same without them.”

St. Mary's Mission Church and School.

Later, as we were leaving, Fr. Jerry had me walk with him to the end of the rectory driveway, where there is a four way intersection of quiet streets. He said that at night when he can’t sleep, he walks out to the middle of that intersection, and looks across to where the school and church stand, to the right where the reservation hospital and prison are, and to his left where some of the poor housing is. He said that it reminds him that the church is at the center of it all. And he says it always reminds him, “We must do better.”