An Interview with Father Hatcher
Father John Hatcher S.J., before a portrait of one of his heroes, Italian Jesuit Eusebio Kino (1645–1711), who pioneered missionary work with native peoples in the Americas.
1. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO ACCEPT THE PRESIDENCY OF ST. FRANCIS MISSION? Before ordination I visited the Mission and fell in love with the Lakota people and their culture. When Cardinal Cupich and Fr. Jim Grummer, SJ, the Jesuit Provincial, asked me to go to St. Francis Mission, I was reluctant. But when I learned our long-standing Mission would be discontinued without leadership, I could not abandon my first love. These people had given new life to my vocation.
2. WHAT WAS THE STATE OF ST. FRANCIS MISSION WHEN YOU ARRIVED? The Mission consisted of three priests, two elderly and one able-bodied, and one elderly brother. It had a radio station, a museum, sixteen children in released-time religious education, and several virtually abandoned parishes. Pastoral ministry had been reduced to a burial society. The life of the church revolved mostly around funerals.
3. WHAT WAS YOUR APPROACH TO RELIGIOUS MINISTRY? From the beginning, I was committed to Native leadership in the Church. I have systematically examined the reasons for the failure of missionary activity among Indian populations and have tried all my priestly life to present solutions that would lead to, in our case, a Lakota-led church.
4. HOW DID YOU PERCEIVE THE PHYSICAL NEEDS OF THE ROSEBUD LAKOTA? The people live in a state of low-grade depression. Everyone is affected by members of their families who are suffering from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. High rates of heart disease and diabetes prevail. Historically there has been a high rate of teen suicide, a rate nine times greater than that of teens in the majority culture. Oral health has also been neglected here, so many Lakota have lost many if not all their teeth.
5. HOW DID YOU RESPOND? We established two recovery centers and partnered with the Betty Ford Center for three years. The Lakota people on the Mission staff were trained to lead the program, redesigning it to fit with the Lakota experience. To counter the teen suicide problem, we created a Suicide and Crisis Hot Line administered by a Lakota person and staffed by seventeen Lakota volunteers 24/7. The Hot Line has saved many lives. To address the problem of oral health, we established a free dental clinic. We partnered with the South Dakota Dental Association, Creighton University Dental School, University of Indiana Dental School, University of Missouri Dental School, and a large number of out-of-state dentists to provide care and preventative education to the people of the reservation, especially the children.
6. DID YOU ADDRESS OTHER NEEDS? Yes. Many of the buildings at the Mission were in very bad shape. We removed several and happily, a tornado demolished another. We renovated several buildings and erected two new ones, one for religious education, now Sapa Un Catholic Academy, and one for the recovery center on our grounds. We set up a double-wide trailer as a recovery center in White River. We completely restored St. Charles Church, the main mission church, repainting it by hand and re-leading the 24 stained glass windows. We enriched our religious education program. Now we see 350 children each week with released time in four public schools. We also sponsor five, week-long, summer programs. Moreover, we revised our sacramental preparation programs asking more of the parents as their children prepare for Baptism, Confirmation, First Confession, and First Communion. As a result, we see more people attending Mass on Sunday in our five churches, and we have more requests for Marriage Preparation. The Mission also enhanced its Lakota Museum. The Lakota director rotates exhibits every three years. We work with the local schools during the school year, conducting guided tours of the museum with students from on and off the reservation. A skilled Lakota linguist, Deacon Ben Black Bear, Jr., directs our Lakota Studies office full time. We improved the religious programming of our KINI FM radio and are now negotiating with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to give them the station with a guaranty to broadcast at least twenty hours of religious programs each week, as well as public service programs for Sapa Un Catholic Academy, recovery, and suicide prevention. KINI is popular 24/7 throughout Rosebud Reservation.
7. WHAT HAS BEEN THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FOR YOU AT ST. FRANCIS MISSION? Without question, our biggest challenge has been to create an adult-adult relationship with the Lakota people. The Federal government in the past and still today has treated Native peoples as children, and so has the Catholic Church. Breaking the adult-child relationship and establishing an adult-adult relationship is critical to establishing leadership.
8. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST SUCCESS? Our greatest success has been seeing the Lakota staff at Saint Francis Mission take leadership of the Mission programs. That Lakota people are now the face of the Mission gives me great hope as I leave. These leaders are fully committed to the purpose of the Mission and out-do the president, allowing me essentially to be a teacher, bringing healing and strength to the people here.
9. WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY TO YOUR SUPPORTERS? I am deeply grateful for the many generous benefactors who have supported the new direction that Saint Francis Mission has taken—namely to create Lakota leadership at the Mission, in the Church, and in the Tribe. This is our legacy, yours and mine. It’s a Triumph of Hope that must continue.
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