In the 1840′s Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, SJ, at the invitation of the Flathead Indians in Idaho, traveled extensively in the northern plains. On his journeys he brought the Gospel to Lakota people but he did not settle among them. He had a reputation among plains Indians as a holy man and a man who could be trusted.
During President Grant’s administration the government decided to assign different religions to specific reservations in an effort to civilize the native people. Since many of the individuals in Grant’s administration were Masons, Catholics were generally excluded from participating in reservation life. Several of the Lakota chiefs who had had contact with Fr. DeSmet – or at least knew of his and the Jesuit’s reputation for running schools – went to Washington to see if the Jesuits (known by the Lakota as “Black Robes”) could be allowed to enter the reservation to teach their children.
On September 26-27, 1877 Chief Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail), leader of the Sicangu Lakota and Chief Red Cloud, leader of the Ogalala, met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and formally requested that the Black Robes come to their lands to educate their people. Sinte Gleska told the President, “I would like to say something about a teacher. My children, all of them, would like to learn how to talk English. They would like to learn how to read and write. We have teachers there, but all they teach us is to talk Sioux, and to write Sioux, and that is not necessary. I would like to get Catholic priests. Those who wear black dresses. These men will teach us how to read and write English.”
With the death of Sinte Gleska in 1881, Chief Two Strike invited the Jesuits to enter the Rosebud Reservation and begin a school. The site was located near camps of Two Strike’s band called Hinhansunwapa (Owl Feather Bonnet). Father Jutz and Brother Nunlist finished a large frame building financed by American born St. Katharine Drexel (whose feast day is March 3rd) and dedicated it in 1886. Father Florentine Digmann arrived in 1888 bringing with him Franciscan Sisters Kostka, Rosalia, and Alcantara. Together they established the Mission School that was named after St. Francis Assisi, who founded the Franciscan order, but was commonly referred to as Sapa Un Ti (“where the Black Robes live”) by the Sicangu. Father Digmann also established 37 Mission stations throughout the Rosebud Reservation and is considered the founder of St. Francis Mission.
The Sapa Un school offered the people in the area a place where they felt safe. The school taught them the Catholic faith and how to function in white society. The Mission School was turned over to the tribe in 1974 and is now independent of the Mission.
St. Francis Mission continues its educational mission by offering release time religious education programs and an after school program that offers religious education, Lakota language enhancement, and recreation. Moreover, the Mission offers adult education programs, a GED program, and educational programs on its Radio Station KINI.
Gradually people moved from the country to town clusters. Many of the original chapels were closed and the Mission now serves the Catholic community with six parishes.