Apostle to the Sioux

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“Happy would I be if I could sacrifice for God what Custer threw away to the world.”


Bishop Martin Marty

During his approximately 59 years on this Earth it is probable that the Sioux chieftan Sitting Bull met only one white man he trusted implicitly:  Martin Marty.

Marty was born on January 12, 1834 in Schwyz, Switzerland to a shoemaker and his wife.  Gifted scholastically, he attended the Benedictine school attached to Einseideln Abbey.  Upon graduation he entered the novitiate, taking his final vows in 1855 and being ordained a priest a year later.  It is quite likely he would have remained at the abbey for the remainder of his life, “of the world forgetting, and by the world forgot”,  except that in 1860 his abbot ordered him to take over a disobedient and debt-ridden daughter house of the abbey in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.  He performed a minor miracle in restoring the morale and faith of the monks at the abbey at Saint Meinrad and brought it back to fiscal solvency.  The abbot decided that he was doing such a good job that he should stay where he was in America.  In 1870, the Saint Meinrad Abbey achieved independent status by a Papal decree of Pius IX with Father Marty as the first abbot.  It continues in existence to this day as an abbey and a seminary.

In 1875 Abbot Marty got into hot water by attempting to substitute the Roman breviary for the Benedictine breviary.  This caused an uproar throughout the Benedictine Order and in 1876 the Sacred Congregation of Rites ruled against Marty and ordered him to restore the traditional Benedictine breviary.  After this incident Father Marty relinquished his abbotship, after receiving a  request from the Bureau for Catholic Indian Missions for two priests to serve as missionaries in the Dakota territory, and set out for the Dakota territory in 1876 with a dream of building a Benedictine abbey there.  Father Marty had read about the deeds of the famous mission priest Father DeSmet and had wished to become a mission priest for years.

Conditions were spartan at the Standing Rock reservation where Father Marty based his operations.  He endured privations stoically which was admired by the Sioux and helped him make many converts.  He arrived in the West in turbulent times, just a month after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  In the spring of 1877 he traveled to Canada to attempt to convince Sitting Bull and his warriors to return to the United States.  He spent eight weeks with Sitting Bull.  Not unsympathetic to the plight of the Sioux, Father Marty sent back letters to the US government in which he attempted to clear up misconceptions about Sitting Bull and the Sioux.  Father Marty failed in his mission, but he made a vast positive impression on Sitting Bull.  Sitting Bull and his Sioux returned to the US in 1881 and surrendered.  In 1883 Sitting Bull was baptized into the Catholic faith by Bishop Marty, joining some 2000 other Sioux who had converted to the Faith.

After he returned from his mission to Sitting Bull in 1877, Father Marty  built an Indian school at Standing Rock.  He sent for four nuns to assist at the reservation and in 1878 established a second mission 16 miles south of Fort Yates which he name Saint Benedict’s.   He wrote a dictionary of the Sioux language and translated many great writings of the Church into Sioux.

On February 1, 1880, Pope Leo XIII decreed that the Dakota territory would be a bishopric, and consecrated Father Marty as the first bishop.  Bishop Marty established his episcopal church at Yankton, the capital of the Dakota territory, but he spent most of his time traveling throughout the territory, ministering to his flock.  After the Dakota territory was divided into the states of South and North Dakota, Bishop Marty became the first bishop of South Dakota.  In 1894 he was transferred to be bishop of the diocese of Saint Cloud, Minnesota.  He died in that post on September 19, 1896.





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  1. St. Meinrad, pray for us.

    Recently, I had business with a man named Meinrad. I had never heard the name.

  2. Pingback: Catholic Phoenix
  3. I expect Sitting Bull also trusted Father de Smet, who is perhaps better known to casual historians of the West than Father Marty. de Smet mediated two treaties between the Sioux and the United States. One might say in these cases that Sitting Bull’s trust was misplaced–not because of anything de Smet did, but because of bad faith by the Americans.

  4. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/father-de-smet-talks-peace-with-sitting-bull

    I don’t think the trust was misplaced. The old ways for the Sioux and the other plains Indians were dying. The only hope for survival was the path of peace and education offered by missionaries such as Father DeSmet and Bishop Marty. Certainly war accomplished virtually nothing for the Plains Indians except speeding up the process of the ending of their traditional way of life, which was as doomed as the buffalo with the advent of the hordes of whites heading West.

  5. Misplaced in an “objective” sense. de Smet himself remained completely trustworthjy. He had no power to force the United States to keep the treaties; and in any case the main violation, the invasion of the Black Hills, did not begin until 1874, after de Smet’s death.

    The way of life of the Plains Indians was no doubt doomed;but the United States did not keep its word.

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