By Therese Fink Meyerhoff and Tracey Primrose
Henry Nolf grew up in Belgium hearing stories of Fr. Peter J. De Smet. Father 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. Father De Smet is Henry’s four-times great uncle.
Father De Smet was born in Flanders, now Belgium, on Jan. 30, 1801. With the express intent of becoming a missionary, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 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, arriving May 31, 1823 — 200 years ago this past spring. 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 peoples. He gained a reputation as a peacemaker between conflicting tribes, while seeking to protect the rights of the Indigenous peoples in the face of increasing land demands of settlers.
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, he 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 stay in touch with his family in Belgium. His many visits to Europe allowed him to attend and preside at family sacraments. The family has saved mementos such as 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 my 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.
Henry reached out to De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis County about a year before his planned trip, and the high school connected Henry 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. He even recruited a stellar escort, Fr. Frank Reale, SJ, former provincial of the Missouri Province who supports the work of the JARC.
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 an historic landmark, recognized by the Vatican as the site of one of the two miracles required for the canonization of Jesuit Peter Claver. Father De Smet is known to have celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s, including presiding at the dedication of the expanded Romanesque structure in 1866.
Following lunch, Fr. Reale and Dr. Miros brought the Nolfs to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, where Fr. David Suwalsky, SJ, gave them a personal tour. Father 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 Fr. Ronald O’Dwyer, SJ, presided at a Mass of Remembrance for the school’s namesake, with Fr. Reale and Fr. James Burshek, SJ, concelebrating. Father 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 Sept. 23, 1827.
After touring the high school, Henry and Claude were escorted to Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, to which Fr. De Smet’s remains were transferred in 2003. He is buried there in the Jesuit plot, along with his earliest companions and nearly 800 other Jesuits.
Henry said he found the visit to the cemetery particularly emotional. “Frank Reale told me he attended the exhumation of Pierre-Jean’s remains,” Henry said. At the time, Fr. Reale was provincial, and he oversaw the transfer himself. Henry found great consolation in the opportunity to speak to him about the process. “He spoke in very simple terms; it was a strong moment.”
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 to the collection a letter, “Village de St. Ignace, Kalispels, 13 Mars 1845 (Oregon),” which pro- vides a new glimpse of Fr. De Smet, the Society of Jesus and the Church of his time.
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. In 1839, on the fourth try, the Salish found their Black Robe, Fr. De Smet.
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. The family entered the beautifully pre- served historic church, which from its earliest days has seamlessly blended Christian and Indigenous traditions and images. Bishop Austin Vetter of the Diocese of Helena presided over moving liturgy, while a Salish drummer plaintively sang traditional hymns.
After Mass, the De Smets 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.
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.
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 peoples. 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 tour of St Ignatius. 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 the 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. Arriving there in 1842, Fr. De Smet wrote that the Coeur d’Alene people were hospitable to Christianity and that he had baptized many members of the tribe during his visit.
Within a decade, 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, where 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, accompanied the family members as they toured the exhibit, which contains important Jesuit and Indigenous artifacts.
By the time of Fr. De Smet’s death in 1873 at the age of 72, the Native American landscape that he advocated for was already in jeopardy and moving toward extinction. Indigenous tribes had been forced to sign treaties ceding their lands to the federal government. Father De Smet, who wanted to protect the Indigenous peoples and their cultures, had himself become convinced that peace treaties were the only way the tribes could survive.
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. “Father 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.”
Perhaps the family’s days in the United States deepened their appreciation for their famous uncle, whom we remember and celebrate as an esteemed Black Robe.