CHURCH OF THE LITTLE FLOWER
When I arrived in Browning, this was the view out my apartment window. Later, in the empty lot between us, was built De La Salle Blackfeet School and the little shack with two apartments was torn down to make way for today’s Faught’s store.
The church is named for the only indigenous female saint, whose name was St. Therese or Kateri Tekakwitha. There are many portraits of her and a statue of her is on the grounds. A photo is on their website.
The Little Flower had a follower in Browning who took the name of Tekakwitha. Distinguished by Down Syndrome, she was often called “Tekkie,” and became a model of kindness and compassion. Her mother, a nurse, encouraged this.
A state historic site, “The Little Flower Church, established in 1931, was built by local community members with rocks hauled in by horses and wagons.” The first hospital was built the same way.
The first time I attended mass there was about 1963 when Joe and Sally Evans’ daughter fell from her horse and was killed because her head hit a rock. Joe was a close friend who had helped create the bronze foundry and his family remained close until today. We sat near the back so we couldn’t see into the balcony and were startled when nuns up there began to sing. Angels! It was a special Children’s Mass.
When I came back in 1999, Bob was gone, but for the next twenty years I attended mass whenever one of my former students died. I sat in the last pew and came very early. Often Father Ed would stop by for a word. Most of the funeral masses were preceded by a small group of guitar-players who sang muted “cowboy” songs. Later in the decades there were occasionally hand drums and songs.
The last funeral mass I attended there was for Darrell Robes Kipp in 2013. As he grew more ill in his later years, he became more devout.
Curley Bear Wagner died in 2009, having gone through stages from devil-may-care kid, when I first knew him, charging through violent and alcoholic streaks, and finally reaching an identity as a respected cultural source and storyteller. Darrell and Curley Bear were near-contemporaries and always friends. Darrell didn’t tell many people about coming home at 2AM and finding Curley Bear unconscious-drunk, lying in the street. He loaded him into the car, took him home and pitched him on the couch to sleep it off. Shamans traditionally go through hell on their way to enlightenment, but not all of them have such a friend.
On the day of Curley Bear’s mass, it was gloriously warm in July. I went early and sat on the front steps of the church in the shade. A dressed -up city woman came to ask if this were the right church and, realizing how early she was, went with her friends to get coffee. When I was in ministry I had been close to her mother and had scattered her father’s ashes. She didn’t recognize me — she was thinking about “Indians.” I didn’t say anything.
Some local street people came to sit with me on the steps. We talked about folks we knew and events we remembered. They weren’t very drunk, but it became warm and made them sleepy. The woman, fondling the man, suggested they go nap in the cool brush by Willow Creek, which runs through town. The church shade had withdrawn but it was near enough time for Mass to go inside.
King Kuka did the abstract brilliantly colored windows. Gordon Monroe made the heroic-sized (Life size plus one fifth) fiber-glass Jesus corpus at the front of the sanctuary. He had done enlargements of Bob Scriver’s sculptures and drew on Bob’s small commissioned version from a woman in California who was very ill and thought of it as a devotion.
Sometimes at Christmas the depiction of Jesus wears a gold lamé drape. I asked an old woman about it and she said, “He is our Son. We want him to look good.” Christianity is meant to be about the cherishing family.
I’m bemused to see that when the families come, the little girls are often dressed as princesses or ballerinas with tiaras and filmy tulle skirts. Their ordinary clothes are often sequined or studded with rhinestones. At some point most adults in this chiefly rural place end up in jeans shirts and jackets. Few women wear skirts or heels. Almost no men wear suits, even white men from other towns. People keep their jackets on but in my time no one kept hats on.
This church is much strengthened by Cursillo. “Cursillos in Christianity is an apostolic movement of the Roman Catholic Church. It was founded in Majorca, Spain, by a group of laymen in 1944, while they were refining a technique to train pilgrimage Christian leaders.” It’s not so different from the UU Leadership School that had such an impact on me. Such impulses are patterned retreats for renewal and inspiration.
Christianity is so old and so global that one can find a small place in it almost anywhere. Catholocism has been particularly adept at surviving by adapting and included the local. Even atheists can be tucked in somewhere, usually quietly but sometimes as a noisy reforming theologian. In places like Browning, those don’t have much impact.
When Bob died, his service was a blend of Catholic/Methodist and spontaneous feeling in the high school gym. He was lain in state conventionally but an eagle feather was put in his coffin. His father had been memorialized at the old Masonic Hall with the Masonic ritual and Bob would have like that but Bob’s early membership in the Masons had been revoked. He never went to church but paid for a stained glass window in the Methodist church and managed his brother’s funeral there. His “real” church was the Opening of a Medicine Pipe Bundle. I did not attend Bob’s funeral, knowing it would create a scene.
Father Ed has retired now from the Church of the Little Flower. Tekkie has passed on. Darrell, Curley Bear, Eloise, and others of that progressive age group who made so much difference to the tribe are part of that parish. Were and are. The church is encouraged as a spot for tourists to visit, but they won’t be able to see the reality of the people, not even the ordinary ones in 1931 out on the prairie with horse and wagon to look for good building stones.