Essay

The Purple Church

By November 8, 2019 3 Comments
St. Charles Borromeo Church, St. Francis, Rosebud Reservation, SD

It’s purple. Well these days, some twenty hot years of Dakota sun later, St. Charles Church looks a bit pink; but originally it was purple. May well be the only purple church in the world. 

Wasn’t always. It was built in 1886 with the gift of St. Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia, heir to her father’s banking fortune, who dedicated that fortune and her life to helping people and was sainted by Pope John Paul II in 1987, a century after St. Charles of St. Francis was constructed. 

If Father Pierre-Jean De Smet had worn a fitbit, his mileage would have been out of this world, so traveled was he throughout the 19th century American West.  Although he didn’t set up an altar at St. Francis, his influence among the Lakota was significant enough to prompt Rosebud people to take note. Years later, their handsome, barrel-chested chief, Spotted Tail, on a visit to Washington in the 1870s, told President Rutherford B. Hayes, “My children, all of them, would like to learn how to talk English. They would like to  learn how to read and write. . . I would like to get Catholic priests. Those who wear black robes.” 

In 1881, a subsequent Rosebud headman, Two Strike, asked the “black robes,” the Jesuits, to start a school, so they did that too, dedicating a building in 1886, that first school financed yet again by St. Katharine Drexel, a school the locals called Sapa Un Ti, or “where the black robes live.”

Even though the mission gave the tribe that school decades ago, St. Francis Mission’s footprint in the neighborhood remains significant. Today it includes suicide prevention, alcohol and drug abuse recovery programs, and a free dental clinic. But all of that started, here, with the purple church.

Officially, the church is named St. Charles Borromeo of St. Francis, a mouthful. But St. Charles has a history so distant in time and place that it’s easy to understand how that last name simply disappeared. Archbishop Borromeo, who lived in Milan in the 1600s, is officially a saint; but his clashes with Protestantism, neither bloodless nor saintly, are of little relevance to a people whose history includes Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.

So the full name is gone, mostly. And today there’s a new school too, a little faith-based, dual-language Catholic Academy named Sapa Un (Black Robe), where every lunch begins with prayer–but also a plate set with food that will not be eaten but simply placed out for those not present, the old ones and others who have gone, an old Lakota ritual to honors the ancestors. St. Charles Borromeo may not have been comfortable with such pagan ritual. 

But St. Charles church, like all of us, has had to adapt, to change, to bring itself into the world it serves on the reservation. It has had to stop telling people how to live and to start listening to the good things all around, to preach less and listen more.

But why is the old church purple?

Started in a summer bible school, I’m told, when a priest asked the kids the relevant question. “So we’ve simply got to paint the church,” he said. “What color do you think the church should be?”

Kids looked around a bit and said purple. 

Like I said, they’ve had to learn to listen.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

3 Comments

  • Thank you for this. I always enjoy your writing but this especially speak to me. I guess Christians were not always as rigid as they seem to be today. We can be rigid or we can do outreach and mission. One, I imagine, cannot do both.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Jim, do you know the story about the stained-glass window featured in the title illustration, gift of Charles and Grace Running Horse in memory of their children—nine of them? What occurred surely must have been disastrous for that family. Stained-glass windows such as those are truly a lost art, and in this case, a record of history.
    I grew up attending at an already century-old church that had two huge stained-glass windows in the sanctuary—one of an angel, the other of Jesus & John (yes, a Baptist church)—and smaller windows featuring biblical and traditional Christian symbols throughout the rest of the building. The bigger windows featured donor names, including recognizable surnames prominent in local history, which we kids read, copied, and wondered about during long summer evening services.

    • James Schaap says:

      Jeff, I took the shot because I thought the dedication so incredible, but I didn’t ask about the story of the window. I’ll go back again sometime, I’m sure, and when I do, I’ll ask. I would like to know. Thanks for asking. . .

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