January 29, 2015
’s note: Catholic Schools Week is the annual celebration focusing on the value Catholic education provides to young people and it
’s contributions to our church, our communities and our nation. This year, we profile the work being done at the Saint Bernard Mission School in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation by Father Basil Atwell, OSB; Father John Paul Gardner; and Deacon George Maufort, SDS.
Behind a podium decorated by colored beads, two girls leading fellow students in a decade of the Rosary, repeat the Hail Mary prayer before the service begins. Kids are scattered in the pews, alongside the nuns and other staff trying to keep them from fidgeting too much. Quilts, candles and Christmas lights adorn the church, with just the right blend of Native American culture and Christian tradition.
After Mass, it’s time for lunch. “It’s pizza day,” a little girl squeals behind cheeks full of sauce, with a chocolate milk carton in hand. It’s the day before Christmas break, which means gingerbread houses and a Christmas party for grades kindergarten through sixth at Saint Bernard Mission School in Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock Reservation.
“There’s very much a family atmosphere here,” Father John Paul Gardner said. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Father John Paul came to Saint Bernard in April of 2013. Assigned by Bishop Kagan as the Catholic Indian Mission’s parochial vicar, Father puts his musical talent and liturgical gifts to work at the school and Mission.
“The most rewarding part of the job is bringing Christ to the children and the teachers and seeing Christ in them,” Father John Paul said.
Father Basil Atwell is pastor of the Catholic Indian Mission and has been with the Mission since August of 2009.
“We want to give our kids kind of a step up in life. As strict as we are, and we are very strict with them, those kids know it’s the best for them and they love us,” Father Basil said. “And we love them.”
A challenging environment
Father John Paul said that even though the staff at Saint Bernard encounters difficult social issues, he feels privileged to work through them.
“People are very honest with us, and come to us with real needs,” Father John Paul said. “To be able to walk with them in those difficulties and help them in those needs, it’s what Christ calls us to do.”
Father John Paul said in addition to giving the children the food and clothing they need he, the mission pastor and the resident deacon, Brother George, also try to help the needy to find the inherent dignity inside themselves. So that even without shoes or shelter, they are valued as a person. These are lessons the school gives to the children, too.
“Thank God we do have the Catholic school system because children who are being brought up in these systems, they’re not just given the ABC’s. They are given the truth. First, the truth about their own lives—that they are creatures loved by God. And that God loves us in every facet of our lives and He gives us gifts throughout life; and, those gifts are to be used well. The fact is, there’s this moral underpinning that begins with the premise that their life matters,” Father Basil said. “When children have come to me, and there have been a few, who have thought about taking their own lives, that’s what I give them.”
Father Basil said that children are taught that their lives matter.
“The Catholic school on Standing Rock has preserved, among our people, a sense of the transcendence of God,” Father Basil said. “We teach that everyone’s life is worthy of God’s love.”
In addition to the lessons of religious and academic subjects, children at the mission school are taught about their Lakota heritage.
There are 70 children currently attending Saint Bernard’s Mission School. Although most of them are of mixed ethnicity, all of the students are either enrolled members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe or have some Lakota/Dakota Indian heritage in their bloodline.
Father Basil stated that each school day begins with prayer and singing of the Lakota flag song accompanied by the rhythmic beat of the sacred drum. Many Friday afternoons are reserved as culture days. There are often cultural speakers, events or projects. On special days, some of the children come dressed in their pow wow attire, or regalia. The Lakota culture is also sometimes incorporated in the liturgies, Father Basil said.
In the past, there have been students enrolled at Saint Bernard who have no Lakota/Dakota Indian ancestry, or even any Native American heritage, which Father Basil says is not a problem. “We’ll gladly welcome everybody,” Father Basil said.
Attendance at Saint Bernard Mission School is denied to no child, even if a student’s parent or guardian is unable to pay the meager $450 yearly tuition. With the help of Ron Schatz, director of the office of stewardship and resource development and, assistants Carol Steier and Linda Urbanec at the diocese, Father Basil is able to locate sponsors willing to cover the expenses for each child, which easily accrues to over $5,000 each year.
With the help of many volunteers, Father Basil said that the Mission sends out letters monthly asking for donations. Despite the many requests, the Mission’s school still operates on a “shoe-string” budget.
Father John Paul said the school has other pressing needs as well.
“Just getting people to come and work here is a challenge. Not many want to make the long daily drive down here. And there’s no housing for teachers. We have great kids, but to have people be willing to come and spend time,” Father John Paul said. “It’s not just about money, it’s about people coming here and helping.”
Despite these shortages and other issues in the area, Father Basil and Father John Paul believe they are where they’re supposed to be, and love it.
Father Basil said more and more positive things are happening on the reservation that many people don’t hear about, in recent years especially. He said Standing Rock now has its own propane distribution, phone company and is seeing more jobs being provided from new businesses.
“A lot of great things are happening on the reservation right now,” Father Basil said.
Both Father Basil and Father John Paul said that in a perfect world, they would like to see the mission school extend to K-12.
“I’m the kind of guy who looks to the future, not because I’m not happy in the present. I’m very happy with the present. I’m in it. But I look for what kinds of things we are doing that will make a difference, for good or for ill,” Father Basil said. “How will they be seen in the lives of children as grownups? What kind of adults will they be?”
Parents and community members have approached Father Basil several times to inquire about the possibility of expanding the school, he said.
“I see it as the Holy Spirit tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Pastor, wake up,’ ” Father Basil said.
“Goodwill all around” is what Father Basil said is the short answer to what it will take for a K-12 school to happen. A longer answer includes more money, space, staff and the willingness of current staff to go the extra mile.
“We think we give them a very good foundation here to go into middle school and high school, but the daily interactions that happen here and the things that they learn between their faith and morals and their intellectual formation, we’d like to continue that even through the high school years,” Father John Paul said.
Regardless of what Saint Bernard will look like in the future, for now, they’re doing the best with what they have.
“There’s a focus on the student here—the ability to realize that God is a part of their lives. There’s an opportunity here everyday for the kids to pray, we start our day with prayer and also a pledge that the kids make to respect God, respect their teachers, respect their parents,” Father John Paul said. “There’s an opportunity in that pledge. The kids take that pledge to recognize their own inherent dignity. That makes a difference in the kids.”