If you are not able to make it to Rome and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in this Jubilee Year dedicated to St. Paul, fear not. Marty, S.D., will suffice just fine. There, you will discover the historic church of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations, which has been designated this year by Bishop Paul Swain of the Diocese of Sioux Falls as an official pilgrimage site for the diocese.
The story of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations begins in the days of the Jesuit missionaries, or the Blackrobes, as they were known. They came to this southeastern corner of South Dakota to minister to the Yankton Sioux. One well-known Jesuit who visited this area was Father Pierre DeSmet; he visited the reservation in 1839.
The Yankton Sioux were very open to the faith and had a long history of petitioning the Church and the federal government to send them a priest to teach their children. They got their wish when the Benedictines of St. Mein-rad, Ind., under the leadership of Abbot Martin Marty (namesake for the town), answered their plea and committed to serve the tribe in the 1870s.
In 1918, when Benedictine Father Sylvester Eisenman arrived at the Yankton reservation, it was one of 10 missions that he covered in a 150-mile radius. He entered a community with an old wooden-frame church and an ever-expanding boarding school. Interestingly, the school was run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who were founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1891. St. Katharine visited the Marty reservation many times, encouraging her nuns in their labors educating the Indian children.
In 1940 Father Eisenman gathered the entire community to begin to build a permanent, fireproof church at Marty. The church was built using only new, noth recycled, materials. In the eyes of Father Eisenman, it would be a place of worship worthy of the Indians’ longtime dedication and faith. The task of putting together this new stone church lacked even rudimentary building equipment, but had the dedication and hard work of the local community.
Father Eisenman enlisted the help of the local high school boys to help haul boulders that had to be crushed, along with sand for the church’s foundation. The high school girls helped keep the men and boys well fed. Even the sisters joined in the effort, helping to haul bricks and sift sand.
Despite much of the construction force being wiped out due to the demands of World War II, the building effort marched on. In the spring of 1942, the end of the project was in sight. In April of that year, two large brass bells were placed in the church tower and a cross was set atop a 167-foot steeple.
The new church was dedicated in December 1942 with much pomp and circumstance. Bishop William Otterwell Brady of Sioux Falls led the numerous priests and laity who flocked to the five-hour dedication service, which concluded with a Pontifical High Mass.
Much of the history of St. Paul’s is detailed in a book written by Mary Eisenman Carson, a former Register staffer. Appropriately published in this year dedicated to the Apostle of the Gentiles, Miracle on the Prairie: Building the Church of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations at Marty, South Dakota, 1942 captures the drama, hard work and vision of the construction of this magnificent church.
Carson knows this story very well, as her uncle was Father Eisenman, the priest who dedicated his priestly life to the Sioux in North and South Dakota. As a young girl, Carson worked alongside not just her uncle but also her father, Leonard Eisenman, who was the chief engineer of this project.
According to Carson, the artwork inside St. Paul’s comes from the heart and hand of the native people themselves. For instance, the large mural behind the main altar, titled “Heaven and the Road to Heaven,” depicts native peoples, along with saints and angels adoring the Trinity. Colorful beadwork patterns are painted on beams, panels, frames and furniture throughout the church.
“From southern Indiana stone quarries, soft shades of golden sand, pale orchid and umber, spread across the arching pillars and walls, literally exposing sands walked by ancestors in ages past,” she writes in Miracle on the Prairie.
St. Paul Apostle of the Nations is probably one of the few churches in the nation that was built with the help of high school students. Not only were the local boys asked to help with hauling stones and pouring concrete, but their carpentry class was abuzz constructing railings, pews and trim work. Meanwhile, the girls helped with the interior artwork. The Stations of the Cross that still line the church walls were painted by a senior at St. Paul’s High School.
Artist Emil Frei from St. Louis designed the 18 stained-glass windows that line both sides of the church. He based his work on snapshots that he took of local school children and adults, and those photos served as models for his glass artwork.
Today, the reservation is still served by members of the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a community founded by Father Eisenman for American Indian women in 1935 and later open to other races.
After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, St. Paul spent the rest of his life bearing witness to what the Lord had done in his life. In many ways, St. Paul Apostle of the Nations has a story to tell, as well. Its testimony gives witness to what happens when a community comes together to make something beautiful for God.
St. Paul would certainly be impressed.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.