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By Therese Fink Meyerhoff and Tracey Primrose

Henry Nolf grew up in Belgium hearing stories of Father Peter J. De Smet. Fr. De Smet was a renowned Jesuit missionary whose impact is still felt a century and a half after his death, but Henry’s stories don’t come from history books; they were family lore. Fr. De Smet is Henry’s four-times great uncle.

In 2023, Fr. Peter De Smet’s family members traveled from Belgium and Chile to walk in their ancestor’s footsteps.

Fr. De Smet was born in Flanders, now Belgium, on January 30, 1801. With the express intent of becoming a missionary, he immigrated to the United States at 19 and entered the Jesuit novitiate in Maryland. He was among the seven Jesuit novices who accompanied two priests, three brothers and six enslaved people to establish the Missouri Mission in St. Louis in 1823. He died May 23, 1873.

During the 50 years between his arrival in St. Louis and his death, Fr. De Smet traveled extensively throughout the American West, founding missions among Indigenous people. He gained a reputation as a peacemaker who sought to protect the rights of Indigenous people. When he was not journeying as a missionary, he was serving at St. Louis College, the Jesuit-run school that became Saint Louis University in 1832.

Between 1833 and 1872, Fr. De Smet traveled across the Atlantic numerous times, recruiting both Jesuits and donations to support his missions and Jesuit colleges from Ohio to the Pacific.

Despite this peripatetic life, Fr. De Smet managed to keep in close contact with his family in Belgium. The family has saved mementos, including letters and crucifixes, from their famous relative and has passed on his memory from generation to generation.

“From the day we were born, we heard about him,” Henry said. “He is a prominent figure in the family, and my parents and grandparents told a lot of stories about him. So, my cousins and I always wanted to make this trip to understand a little bit about what he has done.”

“This trip” Henry and his cousins wanted to make was to the United States, a pilgrimage of sorts timed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Fr. De Smet’s death. Henry and his wife, Claude, would visit St. Louis—Fr. De Smet’s home base—before linking up with additional family members in Montana and Idaho.

About a year before his planned trip, Henry reached out to De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis County, which connected him with Dr. David Miros at the Jesuit Archives & Research Center (JARC). Dr. Miros helped to craft an all-things-De Smet itinerary for the Nolfs, recruiting a stellar escort, Father Frank Reale, SJ, former provincial of the Missouri Province.

First on the itinerary: Sunday Mass with Fr. Reale at the Shrine of St. Joseph in downtown St. Louis. Established by the Jesuits and dedicated in 1846, the church is a historic landmark, recognized by the Vatican as the site of one of the two miracles required for the canonization of Jesuit Peter Claver. Fr. De Smet is known to have celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s, including presiding at the dedication of the expanded Romanesque structure in 1866.

Henry Nolf examines the original headstone from Fr. De Smet’s grave.

Following lunch, Fr. Reale and Dr. Miros brought the Nolfs to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, where Father David Suwalsky, SJ, gave them a personal tour. Fr. Suwalsky, now the vice president for mission and identity at Saint Louis University, in 2003 oversaw the design of the museum, which includes a substantial section devoted to Fr. De Smet. He showed off memorabilia ranging from two priceless globes that Fr. De Smet acquired during one of his European trips to his original headstone.

The next day, Henry and Claude visited De Smet Jesuit High School, where President Father Ronnie O’Dwyer, SJ, presided at a Mass of Remembrance for the school’s namesake. Fr. O’Dwyer presented Henry with framed floorboards from the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, Missouri, where Fr. De Smet lay prostrate when he was ordained a priest. After touring the high school, Henry and Claude were escorted to Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, where Fr. De Smet’s remains were transferred in 2003.

The Nolfs were honored at the high school named for Fr. De Smet in St. Louis.

Henry and Claude later visited the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, where they were able to see additional memorabilia and a room where Fr. De Smet stayed. Their final stop was at the JARC, where they viewed maps of the West that Fr. De Smet drew during his travels. As a gesture of appreciation, the Nolfs donated a letter that Fr. De Smet wrote to his family in 1845.

And then, just as Fr. De Smet had done, his family headed West.

Against the backdrop of the breathtaking Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains stands historic St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville, Montana, the first Western stop on the De Smet family’s itinerary. Henry and Claude were joined by four other family members for a tour of the state’s first church, established in 1841 by Fr. De Smet and his companions.

St. Mary’s history actually began in 1831, when a delegation of Bitterroot Salish and neighboring Nez Perce tribes set out on a 1,600-mile journey from present-day Montana to St. Louis. They had heard about the “Great Mass” from Iroquois who had converted to Catholicism and were determined to find the men they called “Black Robes” and bring them back to their people. Three times their mission failed because members of the expedition fell ill or were massacred while passing through rival territory.

De Smet family members with Fr. Chris Weekly, SJ, Bishop Austin Vetter of the Diocese of Helena (center), Fr. Craig Hightower, SJ, and Fr. David Severson at St. Mary’s Mission

On the fourth try, the Salish found their Black Robe, Fr. De Smet. And on May 24, 2023, 182 years after Fr. De Smet first came to this wild and rugged landscape, six family members stood before St. Mary’s sun-dappled white clapboard mission church to learn more about their ancestor’s life among Indigenous people.

The family members toured the mission’s museum and grounds, including the well-tended country cemetery, a final resting place for both Jesuits and Indigenous people. Bishop Austin Vetter of the Diocese of Helena presided over a moving liturgy, while a Salish drummer plaintively sang traditional hymns. After Mass, Father Craig Hightower, SJ, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Missoula, Montana, delivered what has become a sort of TED Talk he developed about Fr. De Smet and the fascinating history of the early missions.

It was a memorable day, but the highlight was when the De Smet family presented a gift to the historic mission: a crucifix that had been given by Fr. De Smet to his nephew François in 1866 on the young man’s wedding day. It was the first direct De Smet artifact the museum had ever received, and museum director Dora Bradt was emotional as she asked Bishop Vetter to bless the cherished family heirloom.

Fr. Victor Cancino, SJ, showed the family the newly restored frescoes at St. Ignatius Mission in Montana.

On day two of their Western leg, the relatives headed to St. Ignatius Mission, founded in 1854 by Fr. De Smet and fellow Jesuits to serve the Salish and Kootenai people. Father Victor Cancino, SJ, the associate pastor at St. Ignatius, was proud to show the family around as he traced the mission’s history from one small log cabin to a burgeoning compound with a school, sawmill, printing press, flour mill and hospital. Today, most of those buildings are gone, but what remains at St. Ignatius is what has always mattered most: the mission church.

As impressive as the landmark 1891 Gothic Revival church is on the outside, its claim to fame is behind the mission’s doors. Adorning the walls and vaulted ceiling are 58 stunning Renaissance-style dry frescoes and murals painted between 1904 and 1905 by Jesuit Brother Joseph Carignano, an artist who doubled as the mission’s cook and handyman. Recently, the murals were painstakingly restored and are as magnificent as the day that Br. Carignano clambered up scaffolding 120 feet in the air with paint brush in hand.

When planning the family’s trip, Henry said they hoped for two things: to walk in the footsteps of their ancestor and to grow in understanding of Indigenous people. Dr. Ryan Booth, a history professor at Washington State University and a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe, helped fulfill this latter wish as he joined the family for the rest of their visit. Dr. Booth has spent the last several years researching a complex chapter in Jesuit history: For decades, Jesuits and other religious orders contracted with the federal government to run boarding schools for Indigenous students. The schools often had the effect of stripping Indigenous people of their cultural identity by a process of assimilation and indoctrination.

It took the De Smet family about two hours to drive from St. Ignatius Mission in Montana to Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park in Cataldo, Idaho, a journey that would have taken Fr. De Smet nearly four days by horse.

Within a decade of Fr. De Smet’s arrival in 1842, Jesuits and Indigenous people were putting the finishing touches on an impressive mission church, which is today the oldest building in the state of Idaho. In the late 1870s, the Catholic mission was moved to what is today De Smet, Idaho, while the original mission complex is a state park and visitor center boasting an outstanding permanent exhibit, Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet & the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West. Father Peter Byrne, SJ, pastor of the Sacred Heart Mission in De Smet, accompanied the family members as they toured the exhibit, which contains important Jesuit and Indigenous artifacts.

The family with Fr. Peter Byrne, SJ, (fifth from left) and Dr. Ryan Booth at Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park in Cataldo, Idaho

Henry Nolf says that being able to walk in Fr. De Smet’s footsteps provided the family with its own sacred encounter and that he was humbled to see how much of his uncle’s legacy has been preserved.

“Two hundred years ago, it was a kind of a multinational company,” Henry said, referring to the Society of Jesus. “Fr. De Smet was a kind of business developer. His job was to establish missions, and he was surrounded by other very capable Jesuits, who ran them while he moved on to the next one. It’s really astonishing when you look back.”

 

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