Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bishop Mathias Loras Among the Indians

by Johnson Brigham.

Bishop Mathias Loras
In July1837, a year prior to the birth of Iowa Territory, Very Rev. Mathias Loras, of Mobile, was made bishop of Dubuque, his diocese including the region west of the Mississippi now covered by Iowa, Minnesota, and part of the Dakotas. At that time this entire region included but one church and one priest. He first visited Rome to ask the Pope for priests and to solicit funds for his vast missionary field. In April, 1838, he arrived in Dubuque, where a year later, he was inaugurated in the new St. Raphael's Cathedral. He brought with him from France two priests and four students. These, besides the resident priest, con­stituted the force with which he was expected to Christianize the natives, and, with the aid of a few pioneers, to establish churches. Bishop Loras was then in his forty-fifth year and had been twenty years in the ministry. He was robust, in vigorous health, zealous and eloquent. Son of a French patriot, he inherited the spirit which fitted him for his herculean task.

The foundation for the work of the bishop was well laid by Father Mazzuchelli, a Dominican, the "one priest" referred to, who in 1833 had founded at Dubuque the first church on Iowa soil. The corner-stone of the pioneer church edifice, St. Raphael's, was laid in 1835. Father Mazzuchelli, after obtaining a foothold in Dubuque, anticipated the coming of the bishop by founding the chapel of St. James in Lee County, the combination school, dwelling and chapel named St. Anthony at Davenport, and two chapels on the east side of the Mississippi.

Bishop Loras visited the Chippewas, the Sioux, and the Menominees and assigned priests to carry on the work begun by him. He also visited St. Pierre and Fort Snelling, and frequently went out of his diocese to minister in Galena and at other points across the river. Under his ministrations churches were organized at Fort Madison, Burlington, Keokuk, Bellevue, Muscatine and other points along the river; and later, as helpers increased, his priests penetrated the interior, organizing churches in Ottumwa, Iowa City, Fort Des Moines, Fort Dodge, and other interior towns. The bishop wore himself out in the service, and several years prior to his decease (which occurred February 18, 1858), his health and faculties were much impaired.

Bishop Loras's letters are vivid pictures of Indian life and pioneer conditions. A lengthy letter written by him in July 1839, shows not only his skill in descrip­tion but also the perils of his pioneer ministry. He was visiting a Sioux village to establish a mission when a war was declared against the Chippewas. An Indian interpreter arranged a peace conference. He was invited to attend. There were "200 of those half-naked savages armed with bows, axes, lances, and muskets, seated together and looking fiercely at each other." The speaker, beginning in a low tone, soon became violent. Each was applauded by his supporters. The speeches were interpreted. The pipe was handed round. A "lasting peace" was arranged. Next day it was celebrated by a foot-race. A quarrel arose over the disposition of the prizes, and the tribes separated, breathing vengeance. Next day the Chippewas shot and scalped a Sioux. The Sioux quickly mobilized for war. On the 4th of July, the bishop was at the altar offering a prayer for his adopted country when a confused noise burst upon his ears. He wrote:

First Catholic Church in Dubuque
"A moment later I perceived through the windows a band of savages, all covered with blood, executing a barbarous dance and singing one of their death songs. At the top of long poles, they brandished fifty bloody scalps, to which a part of the skulls were still attached—the horrible trophies of the hard fight of the preceding days. You may well imagine what an impression such a sight made upon my mind. I finished the holy sacrifice as well as I could and recommended to the prayers of the audience those unfortunate beings."

The bishop found it impossible to convey an adequate impression of the fury of the Sioux. They pursued the murderers for sixty miles and killed a hundred of them. Of these, all but twenty-two were women and children. Another band of Sioux killed twenty-four and wounded others.

"Instead of discouraging me," he continued, "these events have only inflamed my desire to labor in the civilization of these unfortunate beings, by imparting to them the blessing of the Christian faith."

From  Iowa Its History and Its Foremost Citizen, 1918.


  1. Please, what is the source of Archbishop Loras photograph?
    Thank you,

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