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Father John Hatcher, SJ: Resurrecting a Jesuit Mission

By Tracey Primrose

December 20, 2013 — In 1972, Jesuit Father John Hatcher arrived on the Rosebud Indian Reservation on the sweeping plains of South Dakota for a six-week visit.  Over 40 years later, he’s still there.  Rosebud and its people have left a mark on his heart, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a teenager growing up in Tampa, Fla., Fr. Hatcher, the son of a Baptist father and a Catholic mother, had always been interested in a vocation.  His time at Jesuit High School of Tampa helped him realize that God was calling him to the Society of Jesus, and he entered the Jesuits in 1961. 

Fr. John Hatcher, SJ

After the novitiate and an undergraduate degree in history at the Jesuits’ Spring Hill College in Alabama, Fr. Hatcher taught high school in El Paso, Texas, for four years.  He then moved to Toronto for theology studies at Regis College, where he befriended a young Jesuit named Patrick McCorkell, who had taught at the Jesuits’ St. Francis Indian Mission School on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.  In the summer of 1972 they both went to St. Francis Mission to give retreats to the students and work in the parishes.  It was his first experience of Native American people, an experience that led to a lifetime devoted to the Lakota Sioux.

He fell in love with the place immediately. “The people were very welcoming,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful time.” And when asked to consider how his original six-week visit led to a 40-year ministry, he laughingly adds, “It’s sort of like you get trapped by the situation the first time you’re here. You know after several years, you say ‘Lord you duped me and I let myself be duped.’”

Fr. John Hatcher, SJ

By the spring of 1975 as an ordained Jesuit priest, Fr. Hatcher was working for the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, on a program for deacons and lay ministers, and later as the longtime director of the Sioux Spiritual Center.  Founded in 1976 by the Diocese of Rapid City and staffed by Jesuits, the center is located in the middle of five reservations and offers a variety of spiritual and educational programs for Native American people.  During his long tenure with the Rapid City Diocese, Fr. Hatcher also completed an exhaustive, 10-year inculturation study, an effort to help Native American Sioux bring their symbols and religious heritage into the Catholic Church.

By 2003, Fr. Hatcher’s Jesuit provincial had a new idea: Fr. Hatcher, then 60, would move 190 miles east — from the relative comfort of Rapid City to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  Although once a vibrant mission founded by the Jesuits in 1886, by the time Fr. Hatcher arrived for fulltime ministry at Rosebud, the Jesuit presence was severely diminished and programming was minimal.  Rosebud’s Jesuit school, St. Francis Indian Mission School, had closed in 1972.  And while Jesuits were still ministering to Native American people, Fr. Hatcher recalls that their primary role was to officiate at funerals: “We were simply a burial society.  You would have two days of wakes and a funeral and then you would start over again, and there wasn’t much happening here.”

Rather than presiding over Rosebud’s slow death, Fr. Hatcher set out to bring the Jesuit mission back to life.  Although there were many baptized Catholics on the reservation, the vast majority were not practicing and knew little about the faith.  Fr. Hatcher’s ambitious goal was nothing less than to resurrect the Church.

At a place too often known not for its rugged beauty but for its despair, Fr. Hatcher quickly went to work, envisioning an infrastructure of partnership and support for family healing, spiritual growth, education, academic formation and leadership. To help address the rampant poverty, drug and alcohol dependency and high suicide rate, Fr. Hatcher and his colleagues at the mission developed family recovery programs, a suicide and crisis hotline, a dental clinic and counseling services. And, importantly, religion was back on the reservation with upwards of 200 children attending religious education lessons each week.

Fr. John Hatcher, SJ

After 10 years of rebuilding, Fr. Hatcher and his fellow Jesuits and colleagues on the reservation enjoyed another success this fall as the Sapa Un (Lakota for “Black Robe”) Academy welcomed its first class of 10 third-grade students. Based on the Jesuits’ Nativity model, the academy provides an extended day with three meals, a month-long summer program, high parent involvement and $50 monthly tuition. 

At the age of 70, Fr. Hatcher shows no signs of slowing down.  Frequently on the road for fundraising trips, he has total confidence in his board of directors and management team, run completely by Native Americans. “I’m a teacher by nature and I feel best when my students outshine me, and that’s what’s happened here….If we trust in Native lay leadership, we can make a big difference.”

More than 125 years after the first Jesuits arrived on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Fr. Hatcher says the frontier spirit is alive and well. “This is a frontier because, in general, Native American people are neglected.  Here you have a population that is, by and large, uneducated, that is, by and large, suffering from alcohol, drugs and depression.  They have many gifts to share if we bring a healing process to them, if we say ‘you have every ability to succeed.’

“I do not choose to simply look at the sadness.  One must not get caught in feelings of discouragement, depression or hopelessness. Confident that all of us at the Mission are doing Christ’s work, we bring hope to his suffering members. Success belongs to him. We do our best."

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