Miracle on the Prairie: Building the Church of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations at Marty, South Dakota, 1942
By Mary Eisenman Carson
Infinity Publishing, 2008
85 pages, $9.95
To order: bbotw.com
St. Paul for the Indians
In 1940, the small town of Marty, S.D., located on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation, was in need of a permanent church. In 1942, that need was fulfilled in a special way in the completion of the church of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations.
The history of how this project came about is told in Mary Eisenman Carson’s latest book, Miracle on the Prairie. This tale documents the faith of a dedicated community and the zeal of the Yankton Sioux. Both faith and zeal were under the direction of a Benedictine priest, Father Sylvester Eisenman, whose vision was to make something beautiful for God for the people he served.
Carson’s father, Leonard Eisenman, was the project’s chief architect, and her uncle was Father Sylvester Eisenman.
“This writer had the privilege of working in the business and construction office of her Dad, Leonard, at Marty from mid-1936 to 1938. One way to find him was to ride the open construction elevator on the high school building site in the whipping wind, with a clipboard of checks and letters to be signed. …”
This 650-seat church was built in an era when there was no high-tech machinery or union construction contracts. It was a time when, if you wanted something done, you did it yourself.
And the local community did just that. The area’s high school boys crushed the rock that went into the church’s foundation, while the school girls worked overtime in the kitchen to bring baskets of sandwiches twice a day to those who labored.
Once put in motion, nothing could stop this grand project. Neither the massive loss of men who enlisted in the service during World War II nor the blazing heat of summer nor the bitter cold of winter could deter the dream.
The book has a scrapbook feel to it. The story is told through a great collection of black-and-white photos, as well as letters, journals and local newspaper articles.
In April 1942, the church steeple was raised, signaling that the completion was near. All that was left were the artistic finishes inside. St. Paul’s was consecrated that December. The local newspaper reported:
“The new church is unique in many respects. At most any point, one can easily see that it is an Indian mission church with portrayal of Indian designs throughout. ... The church and mission is a fitting monument to the great and good Indian missionary, Father Sylvester (Eisenman).”
From the raising of the scaffolding to the difficulties of the winter snow plow, Carson spares no details. The book at times contains too much detail for the reader who is not familiar with this southeastern corner of South Dakota. It can be a who’s who of those who worked on and around the building of the parish. It is perhaps more apt for a local readership, who would recognize some of the events and familiar names mentioned.
However, the overall message is a universal one: When you put your hand to the plow and God is on your side, nothing is impossible.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.