One in Spirit: Jesuits & Native Americans Celebrate 175 Years of Friendship in the Northwest

By Kate Vanskike
Editor of Gonzaga Magazine

January 6, 2017 — The sky was streaked with vibrant purples and oranges, the sunset painting itself around Cataldo Hall on Gonzaga University’s campus in Spokane, Washington, which reverberated with the sounds of drumming, singing and laughing. Then, quiet. A beloved elder with long, gray braids recited the “Our Father” in Salish. It rang rugged and rough, soft and melodic. It was a sound that united the ancient Catholic faith with the journey of the Interior Salish tribes.

At a celebration of friendship between the Jesuits and Native Americans, participants lit candles to remember loved ones who had passed.

This was the gathering of 140 members of Native American tribes from Flathead Lake in Montana to Puget Sound in Washington at Gonzaga to celebrate their 175-year friendship with the Jesuits.

Together, the Jesuits and their Native friends formed a spirit choir. “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by. One could say that at the center of that unbroken circle was Jesuit Father Pat Twohy, whose adoration for and from the Native peoples was palpable.

CeCe Curtis-Cook and Fr. Pat Twohy, SJ, in conversation at the anniversary gathering.

“Dear ones, it’s an amazing history we have shared, always learning from each other,” Fr. Twohy said. “It’s wonderful to think of the generations of teachers and elders who held on to the heart of their original spirituality and to the heart of Catholicism in spite of the limitations of the messengers.

“I tell younger Jesuits that you couldn’t have a greater privilege than to be with the Native people. Nothing even comes close to being with you as learners, to learn your sacred way of life on this earth.”

Jesuit Father Scott Santarosa, provincial of the Oregon Province Jesuits, shared, “I have never walked with Native peoples that’s not my history. But I have walked with people who are different than me, who have let me be with them in moments of grace and in moments of failure."

Fr. Santarosa (center) celebrated the anniversary Mass, with Fr. Pat Conroy, SJ (left), and Fr. Jake Morton, SJ.

At the end of it all, we are one. One in Christ,” said Fr. Santarosa. “The same Creator God made all of us. By inviting us into your lives, you have taught us all that.”

“I get inspired when we start every meeting with a prayer. We honor the spirit of our ancestors because we remember what we were taught,” said Ernie Stensgar, a councilman in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for 35 years. “That's what we're doing today, honoring 175 years with the Jesuits. When I pray, I always include the Jesuits — thanks for them helping us along the way.” 

Ernie Stensgar, a councilman in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, spoke at the anniversary celebration.

Stensgar said he marvels at the comingling of spiritual practices. A funeral he attended on the Yakama Reservation included the Seven Drums for the Natives, the Rosary for the Catholics and another prayer offered by a Presbyterian. He said, “We worship in different ways, but together, in respect for each other’s ways of worshipping.

“Bringing us together  that's what the Jesuits do.” 

The Arrival of the Black Robes

Dr. Joe McDonald would say he has been shaped, in large part, by the presence of Jesuits, who had in earlier days been called the Black Robes. A member of the Flatheads (Bitterroot-Salish tribe), McDonald is the founder of the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and longtime supporter of education for Native Americans. But before he was old enough to care about such a noble cause, he was surrounded by the Black Robes: he knew them from preschool and hospitalizations for his asthma, from his grandmother’s funeral Mass and Sunday afternoon stick games at the St. Ignatius Mission in Montana. 

Dr. Joe McDonald examines Jesuit and Native American artifacts.

At the anniversary gathering at Gonzaga, he shared the history of the Jesuit-Native connection.

An Iroquois “evangelist” nicknamed “Big Ignace” arrived in western Montana in 1812 and began sharing with the Flatheads a vision of men coming in long black robes who were going to have special power. He had a great deal of spiritual influence, teaching the Our Father and the principles of Christianity, the sign of the cross and other symbols of the Catholic tradition. 

Fr. De Smet, SJ (back row, third from left) with Native Americans.

Anxious to have more Black Robes come, Natives sent a delegation of four braves back to St. Louis. Two of them died shortly after arriving, and the other two never made it back to the mountains. It was a long wait for the Black Robes to return. After four delegations to St. Louis and multiple deaths, Little Ignace met Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, SJ, in 1839, who provided him with a letter to deliver to the bishop in St. Louis. Fr. De Smet, who was so impressed with their passion for the Catholic mission, wrote, “For the love of God, my very reverend father, don’t abandon these souls.”

The bishop responded by sending Fr. De Smet as the apostle of the Northwest. In 1841, he celebrated his first mass with the Bitterroot-Salish tribe.

Fr. Pat Conroy, SJ, visits with guests at the anniversary event at Gonzaga.

Along with the Ten Commandments, says McDonald, “Jesuits taught us how to grow crops, use cloth to make things, build homes.” In later years, the Jesuits “continued to play a big role in communications between the tribes and the government during times of major political change.” 

As history has shown, the influence of the white man on the Natives has often been destructive and dehumanizing. Despite this truth, those who have been connected closely to the white men in the black robes have immense gratitude for the Catholic teachings that were shared and handed down, generation to generation.

Jesuits, including Fr. Pat Twohy, continue to minister to Native Americans in the Northwestern United States today.

“We are so glad the missionaries came and taught us about God,” says McDonald, “and that Jesuits have continued to have a strong presence among the Natives in the West.” 

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