August 26, 2015
It’s back-to-school time all across the state, but not everyone’s preparation is the same.
The annual routine at St. Bernard’s Mission School in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation includes rounding up volunteers to clean and clear out buildings and grounds. Fr. Basil Atwell, OSB, the pastor of the Catholic Indian Mission with its five parishes and the mission school, has directed this effort for seven school years now.
Getting their hands dirty is not just about preparing for school, but about rescuing souls and serving God. Yes, it’s just that big, according to Fr. Basil.
“We are running a rescue mission,” he said. “We are trying to save lives. The only way we are going to save lives on this reservation is to save the Catholic faith, and the only way we are going to save the faith is through education.”
The school serves an average of 70 students in grades K-7, but Fr. Basil says they really need a high school. “Of all the children who have gone from start to finish in 106 years at our school, we have never suffered the loss of one of them to teen suicide,” he said. “This school is important to save lives and lead them to God. We need to keep them in a Catholic education system that values the dignity of their lives as children of God.”
“We rely on the community and people outside of the community to help us,” Fr. Basil explained, taking a break from directing volunteers on Aug. 8. Well, a break, that is if you call shuffling paperwork and answering the phone in between fielding questions a break.
At least he was sitting down. Until, a homeless man, well known to Fr. Basil, called for some food assistance. Parochial vicar, Father John Paul was no less busy, directing the unloading of a donated washer and dryer from a donated school bus before helping to wash the vehicle inside and out, just for starters. And both men sported the same unique work shirts—black with Roman collars.
“Every year we ask people to help get the school ready,” Fr. Basil explained. “We can’t do it without them.” There is one janitor, but more work for even a small army of volunteers. Typically, groups ranging from 15 to 30 in number come for four days in early August to check off the list of chores Fr. Basil and Fr. John Paul compile. A lot gets done, but never everything. “People can come any time of the year to help if they want,” Fr. Basil explained. “We can always use them.”
Along with the generous support of the people of the Bismarck Diocese, more help is always needed. “The tuition we charge is minimal—only $500—but not everyone can afford even that,” Fr. Basil explained. Last year, additional assistance came by Bishop Kagan bringing in four religious sisters from the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites from India to teach at St. Bernard’s.
“Schools funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and taxpayer dollars pay teachers at other reservation public and Bureau of Indian Education grant schools twice what I can pay,” Fr. Basil explained. “Teachers that come to us are here because of the children. They are not here for the money; they see it as a vocation, not a job.”
As long-time donors age and die, Fr. Basil said that he often receives phone calls from their adult children saying that the donations will not continue.
“Young people are not picking up the slack,” he said. “They don’t think of donating.” There are a few people who donate regularly, however, for which he is grateful. Fr. Basil also shared that recently, because of a Tribal government land buy-out, a Dakota woman sold off some of her land and immediately tithed to the Mission school first. “The people who know what we are doing, love us,” he explained.
Anyone wanting to support a student's tuition can become a student sponsor and will receive a picture of the student and a Christmas letter. Volunteers and donations are also always welcome. The best way to contact Fr. Basil is to send a text message to his cell phone 701-290-6852, or call the rectory at 854-3473 or the school at 854-7413.