Number 6 in my series on great Jesuits of American history. Pierre-Jean De Smet first saw the light of day in Dendermonde in Belgium on January 30, 1801. His parents would have been astonished if they had been told that in his life their newborn would travel over 180,000 miles as a missionary, and most of it in the Wild West of the United States.
Emigrating to the US in 1821 as part of his desire to serve as a missionary, De Smet entered the Jesuit novitiate at Whitemarsh, Maryland. In a move that today would have secularists screaming “Separation of Church and State!” and conspiracy buffs increasing the tin foil content of their hats, the US government subsidized a Jesuit mission being established in the new state of Missouri among the Indians. At the time the US government often did this for missionaries of many Christian denominations among the Indians. So it was that in 1823 De Smet and other members of the order trekked west and established a mission to the Indians at Florissant, Missouri, near Saint Louis. Studying at the new Saint Regis Seminary in Florissant, Father De Smet was ordained on September 23, 1827. Now a prefect at the seminary, he studied Indian languages and customs. In 1833 he returned to Belgium for health problems and was unable to return to Missouri until 1837.
In 1838 he founded the St. Joseph Mission in Council Bluffs for the Potawatomi Indians. He also began his career as a peacemaker as he journeyed to the territory of the Sioux to work out a peace between them and the Potawatomi. It should be emphasized that Father De Smet was making these journeys at a time when he was often the only white man for hundreds of miles other than for a few mountain men and scattered traders. He quickly earned a reputation among the Indians as utterly fearless and a white man whose word they could trust.
In 1840 he journeyed to the Pacific Northwest to establish a mission among the Flathead and Nez Perces tribes, who had been begging for a decade for “Black Robes” to be sent to them and teach them about Christ. After visiting them, Father De Smet promised that he would go back to Saint Louis and return with another “Black Robe” to establish a permanent mission. On his way back he visited the Crow, the Gros Ventres and other tribes. In 1841 he returned to the Flatheads along with Father Nicholas Point and established St. Mary’s Mission on the Bitterroot River, thirty miles south of present day Missoula. The mission was quite successful as indicated by this event. One of the converted chiefs of the Flatheads, after baptism, chose the baptismal name of Victor. On one occasion Father De Smet was preaching to the Flatheads and mentioned how in Europe the Holy Father confronted many enemies of the Faith. Victor became indignant and said, “Should our Great Father, the Great chief of the Black robes, be in danger–you speak on paper–invite him in our names to our mountains. We will raise his lodge in our midst; we will hunt for him and keep his lodge provided, and we will guard him against the approach of his enemies!”