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Indian Reservation Priests Follow A 300-Year-Old Tradition [archive]

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Indian Reservation Priests Follow A 300-Year-Old Tradition

The Rev. Paul Kerns watches the Earth slowly come alive from the rectory dining room window next to St. Ann Catholic Church.

The 55-year-old priest often begins a busy day watching the Penobscot River. One morning late last year, three distinct columns of mist rose from the icy water and moved toward Kerns. The beauty and the symbolism of the many things it might represent - the Trinity, spirits of Penobscot ancestors , the onset of a winter storm - excited him.

He drove into Old Town to run errands that day and talked of the startling sight but could tell that his listeners did not understand. Back on Indian Island, everyone he told his story to smiled and nodded, understanding.

Kerns is one of two diocesan priests who live and work on Maine's Indian reservations, modern-day versions of the "Black Robes" who converted American Indians to Christianity more than 300 years ago. The Rev. Frank Morin serves the Passamaquoddy Tribe at churches in Indian Township and Pleasant Point.

"One of the things this community values are their ancestors," says Kerns, "and priests are certainly part of that. For the last 300 years, there has been a rich history between the Black Robes and the Penobscots."

The first Roman Catholic missionaries came to what is now Maine to colonize the new territory 16 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. The Passamaquoddy Indians were converted by the French Jesuit priest with Samuel de Champlain in 1604. After the priest left, they worshipped without a priest for 60 years, saying Mass every Sunday. In the late 1600s, visiting priests visited twice a year to perform baptisms and marriages.

Father Sebastian Rasle, a French Jesuit missionary, was killed by the British in 1723 during Dummers War. The priest, who lived in the Wabanaki village at Norridgewock, penned many letters outlining the tribe's complaints to authorities. Rasle, according to tribal oral history, was scalped and mutilated by British soldiers to make it look as if Indians murdered him. In an act of bravery and faith, an Indian named "One-Armed Nikola" took the iron cross from the village church to Indian Island. After the French and Indian War ended in 1760, no priests were allowed in the territory because of their French ancestry.

Indian Christians traveled to Quebec to be married and baptize their children. The Penobscots took the iron cross to Baltimore, and asked the Catholic bishop for a priest to minister on the island. The bishop sent a Black Robe to serve the Wabanaki, a confederacy of tribes in what are now Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

As a reward for fighting on the side of the colonies during the Revolutionary War, Father James Romagne was sent to minister to the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys. The General Court of Massachusetts paid his salary for the eight years he served the tribes.

In the early 1800s churches were built on Indian lands and toward the end of the century schools were established. Nuns who arrived to teach the Indian children would be responsible for secular and religious education for more than 100 years.

Today, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland operates three churches on reservations, at Indian Township, Pleasant Point and Indian Island, each one named for St. Ann, the mother of Mary. According to Kerns, the fact that these churches are named after the grandmother of Jesus honors the reverence Indians have for their ancestors.

Behind the altar of the church in Indian Township is a mural of the community. In it is an eagle grasping a cross. It shows the village the way it used to be. Wabanaki designs border each side and dream catchers hang from the chandelier.

The church at Pleasant Point has a stained-glass window depicting Catherine "Kateri" Tekakwitha, Lady of the Mohawks. At the back of the church is a window depicting a Black Robe surrounded by the North American martyrs.

It is not a wholly accurate depiction of the Wabanakis' relationship to the church.

The Indians depicted wear headdresses of Western tribes and there is no evidence that the martyred priests depicted in the window over the choir loft ever stepped foot in Maine. The French Jesuits were brutally murdered by the Hurons, who lived on the shores of the Great Lakes.

There is no crucifix behind the altar in St. Ann's on Indian Island. Instead, a painting of the crucifixion hangs on the wall. Restorers in the art department at the University of Maine believe it is more than 200 years old, painted by a Penobscot who made facial features of Jesus and Mary resembling those of Penobscots.

The man came to the church priest to ask for canvas and paints, but the priest had no money, so he gave the Indian two pieces of altar cloth, which were stitched together. The man made his own paints from dyes derived from barks, plants and berries.

Kerns and his colleague the Rev. Frank Morin, 52, sought their assignments with the tribes. Both men had similar experiences. Morin, pastor to the Passamaquoddy for almost three years, spent five years in Bolivia with an aboriginal community. Kerns called his work years ago with the Apaches "a powerful experience."

Both men see similarities between Christian and tribal beliefs. Both worship a creator and believe in an afterlife, points out Morin. Ceremonies mark life cycle events in both traditions.

"In some ways, it is the same as any parish priest in terms of the sacraments, the rituals, and the parish administration," observes Kerns. "What is different is the culture one walks into. It would be the same with any other ethnic group with its own history or in a university setting. For me its a matter of being open to learning about the culture and how its manifested within the community. How can I preach in this community if I don't understand its values?"

To honor those traditional values, Kerns last year participated in the run from Indian Island to Mount Katahdin.

"I couldn't help but put myself there 300 years ago," he says. "When this community moved, the church moved. I got a sense of what it was like to be traveling with that community. Just as the Wabanaki were recapturing their ancestors, I also was having that same experience."

Morin said his parishes in Washington County are the smallest he has ever served, and his two churches are 45 miles apart. He believes Indian churches are similar to other congregations. "Just as in other parishes, there are Passamaquoddys who do not want to be part of weekly parish life," he observes, "but want life cycle events like weddings, baptisms and funerals to take place in the church."

Janice Murphy, 58, parish administration at Pleasant Point, is the latest in a long line of Sisters of Mercy to serve the tribes. Nuns were sent to the reservations in the late 1800s as teachers and are vividly remembered by today's tribal elders.

David A. Francis, 84, of Machias remembers the Sunday in 1927 when a spark flew from a candle and set ablaze the Advent greenery. The fire destroyed the church and convent. "I was 7 or 8 years old then," Francis recalls. "Sister Ansela got caught in the back of the convent and had to jump from a second-story window. The men stood in a circle, locked their arms and caught her. There was no fire department on the island then, so it just burned to the ground.

"Sister Beatrice, who taught eighth grade, wrote something on a piece of paper and put it in the cornerstone when the church and convent were rebuilt the next year. The papers still in there and when its been in there 100 years, were supposed to take it out. That's why I'm hanging around here."

Elders now can recite their prayers in Latin and English as well as Penobscot or Passamaquoddy. Most of them welcome the church's willingness to translate prayers and hymns into their native languages.

"Thirty-five years ago our history was unknown to us," says George Stevens Jr., 79, of Dana Point. "People didn't want to learn the native dances. It took a long time to educate people and now they are dancing proudly. They not ashamed of their heritage, but revere it. When the Wabanaki confederacy comes together the culture art, dance, music is important. This is a time of evolution and there is a strong commitment from the diocese to native American Indian Catholics."

"Were dealing with a decline in membership," says Morin. "This is a unique time and period. Young natives are increasingly aware of their heritage and back to a native focus. I hear from some that Christianity was imposed on us and if the Indians had not gone along with the Black Robes, wed still be here."

Yet, Sylvia Gabriel, 71, of Indian Township points out that that attitude is not unique to the 21st century.

"My grandfather paddled across the woods each Sunday morning on his own," she recalls. "He said that when people started to sing in church, he couldn't concentrate on his prayers. He said he was closer to God there than in church."

One of the important symbols shared by the church and the tribes is the eagle. In the church, it represents the Gospel of St. John, according to Kerns. In native culture, the eagle is a symbol of God on high. It serves as Gods messenger in a similar way that angels do and is symbolic of the soul rising up to heaven.

"I have never been to a funeral here where an eagle did not fly overhead," says Murray.

A carved eagle sits inside the glass pedestal of the lectern on the altar of St. Ann's on Indian Island. Along the walls are stenciled colorful Wabanaki symbols. The Stations of the Cross hang above them, visually depicting the church's efforts to recognize and honor native spirituality.

"Over the last 30 years," says Kerns, "the members of this parish, like others, have been questioning who they are and what their values are in relation to every aspect of their faith. It is a challenge and an opportunity for this parish to answer those questions."

"Since 1688, that site has been used to voice prayers upward to God," says Kerns of the church on Indian Island. "It is not a museum. It is a place of living faith."

--written by Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News

Additional Reading

 Native American Spirituality
 The Penobscot
 The Passamaquoddy
 Maine Indian Reservations

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