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.