Blackfeet Reservation in Montana is site of a mutually inspirational, faith-filled relationship
By Emily Booker
Whether in the green valleys of Appalachia or the windy buttes of Montana, you can find Catholics full of faith and love of Christ.
The universality of the Church makes it possible to find family all over the world, among people of various backgrounds.
St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport and Little Flower Parish on the Blackfeet Reservation are turning that fact into a lived reality as they establish a new relationship as sister parishes.
Last year, as COVID restrictions loosened and many parishes began resuming regular, in-person activities, parishioners of St. Dominic wanted to reassess what being a parish truly entailed.
“The thought was not just kind of return to the normal but also maybe even continue or even do more in regard to being church. So, the thought of establishing a second sister parish relationship was something that came out of that,” explained pastor Father Michael Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic.
St. Dominic already has an on-going relationship with a sister parish in Malawi, a country in southern Africa.
“It’s a blessing. But there are limits. We can’t really go over and visit very often,” Father Cummins said of Malawi. “So, the thought of maybe doing something here in the country was very appealing.”
“People liked the idea of helping the Native American community, because I think there is an awareness that there is a need there. And people also liked the idea of having a community within the United States. So often we look to other places like Africa or other impoverished places of the world to help, which is wonderful; that’s great to do, but there’s a value to recognizing that we have needs in our country and asking how can we help those needs and build bridges in our country? I think there’s a blessing that’s going to come out of that,” Father Cummins added.
For a while, Father Cummins was having trouble finding a parish to partner with. But with the intercession of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, St. Dominic and Little Flower finally found each other.
“I have a strong devotion to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and I think that’s part of this, too,” Father Cummins explained. “I wasn’t getting very far in connecting with another parish. So, I decided to pray a novena to St. Kateri. And as soon as I prayed that novena, it’s like doors began to open up. It was really kind of interesting. I was able to make contact with the priest who’s the head of the Native American ministry for the USCCB, and he put me in touch with Father Rod [Ermatinger, pastor of Little Flower Parish].”
“We wanted to establish this relationship, and that means going and being with others and being with them and worshiping with them, just beginning that friendship and that relationship,” Father Cummins continued. “Also, being able to visit you get more of a sense of the needs that are there. We certainly hope to help with the needs as much as we can. It’s more than that, though. It is a relationship.”
In June, Father Cummins and three other parishioners went out to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana to meet the people of their new sister parish. The goal of this visit was to simply establish a relationship with Little Flower that will hopefully blossom for years to come.
“Along with four joyful Sisters visiting from the Missionaries of Charity, we were able to visit, listen to, and meet people from the six communities that comprise the two parishes and four mission churches pastored by Father Rod on the 3,000-square-mile reservation,” noted St. Dominic parishioner Patricia Evans.
The visitors handed out 500 bags of food, rosaries, miraculous medals, and holy cards to people in the Montana towns of Browning and Heart Butte.
“This would not have been possible had it not been for the very generous Blackfeet parishioners, who lovingly worked on the agenda and accompanied us throughout the visit, describing how their cultural background was a natural connection to the Catholic faith. The Blackfeet are rooted in both nature and community. The latter was evident as everyone in the community seemed to know by name, love, and respect each other…. Though material wealth was lacking, their spiritual thirst and strength seemed as strong as the 47 mph winds we experienced in Babb, which was most normal to them,” Ms. Evans pointed out.
The Blackfeet Reservation is situated in northwestern Montana, with the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Canadian border to the north. There are six Catholic churches, Little Flower and St. Anne, and mission churches, St. Mary in Babb, Sacred Heart in Staar School, Chapel of the Ascension in East Glacier, and Holy Family, which borders Two Medicine Creek. There is the De La Salle Blackfeet School for grades 4-8 in Browning.
Father Ermatinger is the only priest on the reservation. He and one deacon travel among the churches and missions.
For St. Dominic parishioner Alma Velasco, seeing how the missions had to make do with limited clergy and resources made her better appreciate having regular access to the sacraments.
“Visiting our sister parish and its mission churches in the Blackfeet Reservation made me realize how very blessed we are here at St. Dominic to have daily—twice even on Wednesdays—Masses, multiple weekend Masses, and the opportunity to walk into church anytime for personal prayer, adoration, or just for simple quiet moments,” she said.
“Having only one priest and one deacon, some of the mission churches may only have Communion services on a regular basis. However, the communities we visited are not at all lacking in their devotion to the Divine Mercy and trust in God,” she added.
Father Cummins reflected that life on the reservation is stark in many ways.
“The terrain itself is very stark. In some ways it’s very beautiful. Immediately to the west is Glacier National Park, so you have these beautiful mountains. But where they’re at, it’s a stark landscape,” he said.
“And the wind there. I’ve never experienced wind that blows constantly. So, it’s a stark landscape, and in many ways stark conditions. There’s a lot of poverty, and out of that there’s a lot of drug issues and alcohol issues. There’s not much opportunity, although they’re trying to do things to bring in opportunity for the people on the reservation. But, all that being said, I was struck by the faith of the people and their love for Christ and for the Church.”
Father Ermatinger estimates that 90 percent of the people who live on the reservation are baptized Catholic. While the stark conditions of life on the reservation bring many challenges, the people remain strong in their love for Christ. In fact, it may be those challenges and the generations of perseverance that have taught them how to persevere in the faith.
The parishioners of Little Flower have a deep pride in both their faith and their culture.
“I asked one lady, ‘Can you hold together both your faith in Christ and also your heritage?’” Father Cummins recalled. “In a very strong voice she said, ‘Yes.’ There’s a desire that they have to do that. They’re very proud of their heritage, and they hold those two [faith and heritage] together, I think, in a very good way. I’m sure that’s a challenge. I was struck by the faith of the people and their perseverance in these stark conditions and historically what they’ve had to endure.”
The parish relies heavily on donations from people who don’t live on the reservation. Father Ermatinger expressed his deep appreciation for those who support them.
“We are so very grateful for how generous the people of St. Dominic Parish have been with us financially and also by delivering three crates and a large duffel bag of clothing for our people,” he said.
“There is a deep hunger for what the Catholic Church has to offer here. Jesus said the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few. Together we can become better laborers and in so doing help others to become laborers in our Lord’s vineyard.”
“The experience taught me what being the body of Christ truly is,” St. Dominic parishioner Danyelle Porter said. “Working alongside people with hearts so on fire for Christ instilled in me a call to action for my brothers and sisters in Christ. Hearing the beautifully articulated and often painfully tragic stories has shaped me in ways that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
“My hope going forward is to strengthen our relationship through more awareness, outreach programs, and helping to build up Little Flower as a beacon of hope for the Blackfeet community.”
Experiencing a different culture in a different part of the country has been inspirational.
“There was a peace in stepping out of our perception-driven world and witnessing the natural beauty of the people and the land, focusing on simple goodness and truth. That is what I hope they can continue to share with us, and teach us to better appreciate,” Ms. Evans said.
Ms. Velasco agreed.
“As we continue to develop our relationship with our sister parish, my hope is that they may inspire us with their strong faith and sense of community, and may we in turn be generous in sharing our resources with them,” Ms. Velasco said.
Father Cummins hopes this is just the first of many visits between the two parishes, and that the visits will go in both directions.
“I think part of the beauty and the reality of a sister parish is it is a relationship, and we realize there are blessings that go both ways. Hopefully, as the relationship grows and as people meet one another and share faith together, we will receive just as much from them as we are able to give. It’s all about being church and recognizing that we’re church together and receiving the benefits from that,” he observed.