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Bismarck Diocese Centennial


The Bismarck Diocese of the Catholic Church is celebrating its Centennial this month. In addition to the many planned festivities, the Diocese published three books to mark the occasion; a history book of the Catholic Church in western North Dakota; a necrology, that is an account of the lives of priests and bishops now deceased, and a two-volume cookbook.

The history goes back to 1735 and the story of the first Catholic missionary to western North Dakota. Thirty year old Father Jean Pierre Aulneau arrived at Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota that fall, intending on accompanying Pierre Gaultier, better know as La Verendrye, on an expedition to the "Mound Dwellers" along the Missouri River. La Verenrye was delayed, waiting for supplies, so the young Father decided to proceed into unknown territory on his own to evangelize the "Mantannes," or Mandans as they're known today. Father Aulneau didn't get very far. On June 8th, 1776, he and 20 members of the expedition were killed by a band of Sioux on what is now known as Massacre Island on Lake of the Woods near Warroad, Minnesota.

There were several much-loved and highly respected missionaries who did survive to serve in the area in the years leading up to the formation of the Diocese of North Dakota in 1889, and 11 years later, the Bismarck Diocese. The most notable of these men was the physically rugged, charismatic and genuinely friendly Father Pierre De Smet who roamed the area between 1840 and 1870 making friends with all the Indian tribes. Father George Belcourt founded a mission along the Assinaboione River in Canada. Shortly thereafter the Mandan and Hidatsa raided the mission, massacring the Chippewa there. Afterwards, Father Belcourt worked tirelessly to establish peace between his Chippewa Catholics and the Mandan/Hidatsa.

The efforts of the missionaries were not lost on military leaders of the time. In an 1866 letter from General Alfred Sully to Father De Smet, Sully writes..."...I can say that the priests are the only missionaries I have ever seen who have been successful in improving the condition of the Indians to any great extent...I attribute this in part to the solemnity of the ceremonies of the Church, but in a great measure to the example set the Indians by the priests...their self-denial and devotion and their mode of living, which causes the Indian to believe them something superior to the rest of mankind."

You can learn more about this time in history of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Bismarck Centennial book, "Perseverance in Faith: A History of the Catholic Church in Western North Dakota," edited by Marge Grosz and Margaret Sitte. The Diocese of Bismarck's major centennial celebration is scheduled for June 11 through the 13th at the Bismarck Civic Center.

Dakota Datebook written by Merrill Piepkorn

Source: "Perseverance in Faith: A History of the Catholic Church in Western North Dakota"