St Katharine Drexel was among the first Catholic philanthropists to help the Catholic Church on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The year was 1885—U.S. government wars raged in native lands. Following the massacre of more than 150 Lakota people at Wounded Knee in 1890, one callous reporter wrote, “Why should we spare even a semblance of an Indian? Wipe them from the face of the Earth.”
Young Katharine felt otherwise. When she saw native peoples, she recognized the face of Christ. She spent her life and family wealth helping native communities in the U.S.
Catholic Extension continues her works of mercy and compassion to this day on the Rosebud Reservation, located in the Diocese of Rapid City.
Big mission in a vast region
Jesuits founded St. Francis Mission in the 1880s at the invitation of a Lakota chief. Catholic Extension has supported the mission since 1910, when a $200 grant helped build one if its mission churches on the nearly 2,000 square mile reservation.
Today the ministry has grown to include five parishes, two addiction recovery centers, suicide prevention programs, a Catholic K-8th grade school that teaches in both Lakota and English language, a dental clinic and a museum.
Catholic Extension has worked in solidarity with faith leaders on the reservation for more than a century. Donor support has helped build churches, develop life-saving programs, and support the salaries of religious and lay ministers.
One of these lay ministers is Jennifer Black Bear. Black Bear brings the light and love of God to the Lakota through the religious education programs of St. Francis Mission. She grew up on the reservation and now helps youth find purpose through Catholic and Lakota teachings. Catholic Extension has supported her work, which strengthens both the future of the mission and the future of the children.
“My greatest hope and dream for all the young people is for them to learn more about God, about Jesus.”
“I want them to be able to be able to learn it and to live it and to practice it,” she said. “It will inspire them to be better people. They will want to go on to school. They will want to do better for their community and for our people.”
A special arrangement with the public schools allows her and the mission staff to offer religious education in the classrooms. Their after-school programs and a summer camp support children’s self-esteem and faith. Through these initiatives, Black Bear helps hundreds of youth on the reservation.
Preserving Lakota Culture
St. Francis Mission is dedicated to preserving the language and heritage of the Lakota people. Black Bear believes the culture of the Lakota and Catholic faith are closely connected.
She teaches the children how to pray the Sign of the Cross and “The Glory Be” in Lakota. These prayers align with traditional Lakota values such as respect, bravery, generosity, fortitude, humility and wisdom.
Black Bear is not alone in this hope-filled work. Her husband, Ben Black Bear III, also serves the community as a parish administrator with St. Francis Mission. Together they prepare the children for their sacraments and engage them in activities that strengthen their relationship with God and their community.
Lakota families can see the change in their children. One parent said, “To my family, youth group meant finding my daughter’s true self.”
Accompaniment and the pandemic
Jennifer Black Bear’s role was more important than ever when the tribal government issued a state of emergency in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our tribe was hit hard by the pandemic. We lost a lot of our elderly,” Black Bear said. “A lot of our language and our teachings was lost with our elders.”
She continued to reach out to students by phone, email or mail. Her team moved classes online and mailed instructional packets. She arranged new social distance protocols to continue classes and celebrate sacraments safely.
“It brings hope to us here, because people are really reaching out. They’re scared, and they want to be closer to God,” she said. The children and families are grateful for her tireless efforts.
One young woman said after her confirmation:
I feel like my faith has gone further, and I built a stronger relationship with God,”
“It was a great learning experience, and brought my family back to the church,” said another.
Catholic Extension’s support has been a lifeline during the COVID outbreak. Funding has helped native families access food and other essential goods such as medicine.
A Catholic Extension grant also helped Black Bear’s ministry establish a voucher program that will allow families to purchase food at local stores, which have been devastated in the pandemic. The funding will uplift the local economy and bolster job opportunities.
Catholic Extension is committed to serving the Lakota through St. Francis Mission’s spiritual presence and life-saving outreach. By igniting faith and hope in the hearts of the Rosebud Reservation youth, Black Bear’s ministry is transforming lives, one child at a time.
“I want them to have a sense of God,” she said, “and to know that they’re loved, and that they’re never alone.
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