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110410 DeSmet
Pierre-Jean DeSmet

Pierre-Jean DeSmet followed old trails to St. Ignatius in September 1863.

The Belgian-born Jesuit missionary had established his legacy in the Rocky Mountain West 20 years and more earlier, one that included the founding of Montana's first permanent white settlement at St. Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley.

Montana wasn't Montana yet - territorial status was nine months away - and DeSmet, 62, was on a different sort of journey. He had journeyed up the Missouri by steamboat to deliver goods to the Indian missions along the way.

"It was a complicated process - which steamboat company to patronize, which route to choose, how to pay for the supplies before he could take possession," Robert Carriker said Monday. "But it was part of his job as procurator of the Rocky Mountain Missions, meaning he was the ‘supply sergeant.' "

Carriker, in his 44th year as a professor of history at Gonzaga University in Spokane, will be at the Lolo Community Center at 7 p.m. Thursday with slides and stories about a man who has been hailed as a giant of the pioneer West.

He's calling his presentation "Entertainment for the Evening: Father Peter De Smet Visits St. Ignatius Indian Mission, 1863."

It was the frontier tradition that when a stranger came to town everyone assembled to listen to his tales and experiences.

"So he's the entertainment for the evening," said Carriker, who as DeSmet will reenact what the priest might have discussed in such a setting when he arrived at St. Ignatius on Sept. 5, 1863.

The subject matter is rich. While the legacy of Indian missions still arouses intense and bitter emotions, DeSmet was almost universally loved, respected and accepted by the tribes he encountered on his travels in the three-plus decades before his death in 1873.

But DeSmet did much more than establish Catholic outposts among the natives, Carriker pointed out.

"He was first in a lot of places, and he experienced so much of what made the West the West, whether it was the Indians or the Mullan Road or the missions or the mountains," the professor said. "He not only visited there, but he left us his writings."

DeSmet's journals and letters were extensive and, because of the high premium placed in Jesuit training on education, remarkably insightful and well-written. Carriker is one of several who've used them to reconstruct the man's life in a book published in 1995 called "Father Peter John DeSmet: Jesuit in the West."

It's a measure of DeSmet's influence that so many geographical features bear his name, including the former railroad town west of Missoula, where an elementary school's athletic teams are nicknamed the DeSmet Padres.

There's a DeSmet, Idaho, and a DeSmet, S.D., the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" fame. There's a lake named DeSmet near Sheridan, Wyo.; DeSmet Halls on the campuses of Gonzaga and Denver's Regis University; a DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis; and Roche DeSmet, an 8,300-foot peak in the Canadian Rockies.

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DeSmet and a small escort of Indian guides set out on Aug. 25, 1863 from Fort Benton for Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.

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As Carriker recounted in his book, they followed the new Mullan Road as far as Hell Gate, Missoula's predecessor village. There Father Joseph Joset and Brother William Claessens were building the first church for whites in the region.

"In a moment of nostalgic reflection, DeSmet paused to admire the growth of Christianity since 1841, when he became the first clergyman ever to pass through (Hellgate Canyon)," Carriker wrote. "Now, two decades later, hundreds of whites lived in the vicinity."

A short distance out of Hell Gate, perhaps near the site where the town of DeSmet later rose, DeSmet's party met another Catholic missionary.

Father Joseph Giorda was traveling from St. Ignatius to Fort Benton.

The two exchanged glad tidings and remained for a day at an Indian camp, baptizing infants and distributing religious relics. DeSmet called the day "one of the most agreeable and consoling of all my long wanderings."

The next day, he reached St. Ignatius, a mission established nine years earlier. Carriker said the assembly that gathered that evening to listen to the esteemed visitor would have included mission priests, staffer and helpers, and other locals.

"It would be just like in Lolo Thursday night - anybody who lived in the vicinity who had heard or seen that a stranger was coming."

 

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