Sioux Episcopalians celebrate new church arisen out of arsonist’s ashes

St. James comes home to a ‘place for new memories’

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 25, 2013
Using the sleeve of her alb, the Rev. Delores Watson, deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, dries off Mance Chasson Spotted Elk, 1, after his baptism Nov. 23 by Diocese of North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith. Mance, who is being held by his mother Dusty Spotted Elk, was the first baby baptized at the new St. James Church in Cannon Ball. Looking on is Joshua Floberg who renewed his baptism a few minutes later. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Using the sleeve of her alb, the Rev. Delores Watson, deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, dries off Mance Chasson Spotted Elk, 1, after his baptism Nov. 23 by Diocese of North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith. Mance, who is being held by his mother Dusty Spotted Elk, was the first baby baptized at the new St. James Church in Cannon Ball. Looking on is Joshua Floberg who renewed his baptism a few minutes later. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Cannon Ball, North Dakota] On a brilliantly bright but frigid late Nov. 23 morning here on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, the people of St. James Episcopal Church officially came home to a new church that echoes a teepee and feels as if the worshippers are gathered in a dream catcher.

The temperature hovered around 6 degrees Fahrenheit and a slight wind was blowing off the nearby Missouri River as congregation members and visitors stood in the gravel parking lot for the beginning of the service.

They sang “Many and Great,” a hymn that the Rev. John Floberg, St. James rector, said was believed to be the first Christian hymn written in Lakota. It was sung, he told the congregation, by 38 Dakota men as they walked to the gallows Dec. 26, 1862 in the largest one-day execution in U.S. history after they were convicted on allegations that they were part of an uprising that year.

“Let the door be open,” said North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, wearing an Indian feather headdress in place of a miter and loudly pounding on the door.

When the Rev. Neil Two Bears and acolyte Mia Two Bears opened the door, Smith announced “Peace be to this house, and all who enter here,” using his pastoral staff to mark the threshold with the sign of the cross.

The ceiling of the new St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, is meant to evoke a teepee and a dream catcher. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The scene was a far cry from the night of July 25, 2012, the Feast of St. James, as an arson fire tore through the wooden church building and guild hall.

Phoenix Martinez, 19, pleaded guilty to a charge of arson and was sentenced Sept. 30 to three years and four months in federal prison, to be followed by five years of supervised release. He was ordered to pay restitution of $354,100.

The sole visible reminder of that night is the cross that hangs in front of a star quilt above the pulpit. It is made of two rugged and charred pieces of timber from the floor of the St. James Guild Hall, the only wood that was not reduced to ashes in the fire.

“It feels like a homecoming,” said Senior Warden Florestine Grant before the service began. “We’re dreaming about the things we can do here for the children, for the elders and for the culture.”

One of her daughters, Alex Spotted Elk, said that it was too bad that a fire caused the congregation to have to build a new building. But, looking up to the opening at the top of the roof, she said, “This is a place for new memories.”

The Rev. Terry Star, a deacon who grew up in St. James and is a seminarian at Nashotah House, preaches Nov. 23 during the consecration of the new St. James. Behind him is a cross made of two rugged and charred pieces of timber from the floor of the St. James Guild Hall, the only wood that was not reduced to ashes in the July 25, 2012 arson fire. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Terry Star, a deacon who grew up in St. James and who is now a seminarian at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, recalled during his sermon how nearly 100 years ago an Episcopal bishop told the Sioux in the area they had to put away their Indian adornments in order to be Christian. That attitude is changed, Star said, as evidenced by the adornment of the new St. James.

“We can be a Dakota people; we can be who we are – that God made us to be – and still follow Jesus Christ,” he said.

Star said he hoped that the beautiful and colorful church would become a strong symbol for the people of the area.

He recalled a story that his grandmother told him of Iya, a great monster whose name literally means “mouth,” who was eating up the people, and Ikto, the trickster who flattered the monster to get him to trust him. Ikto pretended to be Iya’s big brother and asked what the monster feared. Iya said he was afraid of loud noise, of singing and drumming. Ikto went ahead to the next village and told them to start celebrating with songs and drums.

The trick worked; Iya was paralyzed by fear and Ikto killed him. When Iya’s stomach was cut open, all the people the monster had swallowed came back to life.

“We have a darkness eating up our people,” Star said. “It’s something swallowing up our people.”

A drive around Cannon Ball, Star said, shows a lack of “artwork and colorfulness,” other than the “marshmallow-colored housing” whose tints were not the choice of the occupants.

“We have an opportunity in this building and through the Gospel and through our worship in this building to bring color and celebration back into the community,” he said. “We can chase away the Iya that’s eating up our people.”

Star said that members should bring artists “who can hear these Gospel stories and express those gospel stories through their work” to the church and “show them that there’s a home for that kind of work here.”

He also urged the congregation not just to be Christmas and Easter attendees.

“This building doesn’t work if it’s only used on Christmas and Easter; we have to be in here all the time,” he said.

And then, “all the joy and happiness” that comes from worshipping here in this space, Star said, “is not supposed to stay here.”

“We’re supposed to take it out those doors and out into the community,” he concluded. “Kill that Iya and bring joy and happiness back into our community.”

Star, who read the Gospel in Dakota, epitomized the church’s confluence of Western Christianity and Sioux spirituality. He was vested in cassock, surplice, tippet and preaching tabs, wearing a medallion beaded with the Chi Ro symbol, an eagle feather tied in his hair and beaded moccasins on his feet. Star preached from an iPad.

A church filled by artists and donors
The new St. James, still a bit rough around the edges with boxes of flooring hidden under pews and communion rails that were anchored in place earlier in the morning, is furnished with donated items and furniture from other churches, together with new contributions.

A vivid star quilt hangs at each of the four corners of the nave. Star quilts are often given away at funerals, naming ceremonies, marriages and other celebrations to represent the giver’s thankfulness to the receiver. Another star quilt, which adorned the pulpit during the service, will also serve as the altar frontal.

The baptismal font, carved by local artist Charles McLaughlin from Colorado alabaster, evokes a bull boat, which was used to cross from one side of the Missouri River to the other. Some Yanktonai Sioux who survived that 1863 Massacre at White Stone Hill came across the river to live with other Dakota living near the mouth of the Cannon Ball River.

White Stone Hill will be depicted on one side of a yet-to-be completed mural on the back wall of the apse. The nearby hills will be on the other side and, in the middle will be the New Jerusalem as a teepee village, Floberg said.

On the side below where the nearby hills are to be painted, a large flat-screen television is already hung.

Holly Doll, the granddaughter of long-time Standing Rock Episcopalians the Rev. Innocent and Edna Goodhouse, designed and created a parfleche gospel book. A parfleche is a decorated animal-hide bag that Plains Indians traditionally used to keep and carry important documents. The Bible inside this parfleche is a Dakota translation of the New Testament.

Area Episcopalians donated other items and Holy Trinity in Juneau, Alaska, another church that knows what it is to lose its building to fire, donated the processional cross.

Former House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson receives a star quilt at the end of the Nov. 25 consecration service at St. James Episcopal Church to thank her for leading the Ikpanazin Rebuilding Fund that gathered $67,532 to help pay for the new church. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, current president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, donated candlesticks, processional torches and the Paschal Candle in honor of her predecessor Bonnie Anderson, who helped raise money to build the new St. James.

Many of the major furnishings, including the pulpit, communion rails, pews and a reredos featuring a mural of the Ascension whose background could be a depiction of the hills outside the church, came from Houglum Lutheran Church in Lake Park, Minnesota. Floberg grew up west of Lake Park in Hawley and learned about the church’s August 2013 closing while reading the local newspaper and contacted the congregation to tell them about the St. James fire and rebuilding plan.

The freestanding altar, however, is another story. A simple closed-sided table on whose front the words Wakan (Holy) flank a gold cross had served the St. James congregation as a gift from the Congregational Church at Big Lake on the reservation until the 1990s. When an Episcopal church in nearby Park Ridge closed and its furnishings came to St. James, the old altar went to St. Gabriel’s Camp in nearby Solen. Now it is back at St. James.

Pat Fearing, a local representative of the United Thank Offering, describes how the $48,500 grant St. James received to assist in building its new church – and all UTO grants – came from contributions Episcopalians make in large part via Blue Boxes, such as the one the Rev. John Floberg is holding up. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Building a new St. James in the 16 months since the fire has been a major effort. A settlement from Church Insurance plus some diocesan money brought $359,392 to bear but a gap remained. Anderson led the Ikpanazin Rebuilding Fund that gathered another $67,532, along with $5,000 in donations and pledges from the St. James congregation, Floberg told Episcopal News Service. The United Thank Offering gave the church a $48,500 grant during its 2013 round of funding to help.

The combined fundraising effort exceeded its goals and a second phase is now underway to build a baseball field and picnic areas near the church.

However, the collection taken up during the Nov. 23 consecration will be given away. “In gratitude for all we have received from others” Smith told the congregation, the money would go to the Episcopal Church’s effort to rebuild the earthquake-destroyed cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the first phase of which is predicted to cost $15 million.

Prairie Outpost Log Homes of Mandan, about 40 miles to the north, built the post-and-beam St. James church after suggesting the concept of rafter beams swirling up to resemble the poles of a teepee and with cross pieces adding the dream catcher effect. Jordan Shelltrack, a young member of the congregation who read a portion from the Book of Revelation during the service, sketched out the floor plan. More details about the planning process are here. A collection of photos on the congregation’s Facebook page here traces the construction.

The congregation worshiped from May to September in a banquet room of the tribal-owned Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, about 10 miles south of the church, and the members gathered for a meal there afterwards. The new building has been used for the parish’s 60-member youth group that meets each Wednesday night.

St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, before a fire destroyed the property on July 25.

St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, before a fire destroyed the property on July 25, 2012.

‘One of North Dakota’s toughest towns’
The St. James congregation was established in 1890 in Cannon Ball, which is part of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, and has been home to generations of Episcopalians, Floberg said.

Cannon Ball, in the south central part of the state, was the first place the Episcopal Church was established on the North Dakota reservation. Three other congregations trace their roots to St. James, according to the diocesan website. Services there include hymns in the Dakota language.

On the diocesan website, the congregation says it is in “one of North Dakota’s toughest towns.  Addiction to alcohol and unemployment are both very high. But we aren’t going to give up.” That sentiment was written before the arsonist struck.

“The church was a rock in the foundation of the small reservation community,” the Bismarck Tribune said in a Nov. 21 editorial that wished the congregation well in its continued service to the people there.

About 875 people live in the Cannon Ball area, 813 of them Native American, according to the 2010 Census.

By one measure the median income in 2011 was $25,504, compared to $51,704 for the state as a whole, and per capita income is $9,597 while the state average is closer to $26,000.

Episcopal Church involvement with the Sioux began in the mid- to late-1800s after the 1862 Dakota uprising in neighboring Minnesota that resulted in the U.S. government deporting them to reservations in South Dakota. Just after the Civil War, the federal government offered land to various Christian denominations in exchange for their complicity in its effort to force Indians to assimilate into the white settlers’ culture through the federal government’s reservations system.

The Episcopal Church helped to carry out that plan mainly east of the Missouri River. The 1871 General Convention created the Niobrara Missionary District, which included parts or all of what are now North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Episcopalians who live within the boundaries of that former district still gather in convocation every June.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (3)

  1. Rev Darlene Kuhn says:

    Congratulations! May God dwell with you through the years to come.
    St. James’ Episcopal Church, Albion, MI also lost their building to fire in 2007 and understand the devastation and sense of loss. We too are worshiping in a fine new building.
    God’s blessings to you.

  2. Ellie Warren says:

    The people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church certainly deserve their lovely new church, especially after the previous structure was burned to the ground by an arsonist. The inhumane treatment of the Native American peoples by various groups in the United States, through the decades since this land was overtaken, is a story that needs to be repeated in schools, churches and in books. This country was not ours for the taking, and a beautiful, spiritual and intelligent body of people have been horribly treated and marginalized. The story of the rebuilding of St. James is a hopeful story. Dozens of people have come together to make this new church a reality, thanks be to God.

  3. Janet Diehl says:

    Blessings to all who helped build anew St. James Church in Cannon Ball, South Dakota, and all who worship there. Judging from the photos in this news article, the new structure is far more reflective of Indian culture than the original building. Blessings to all who shall whorship there.

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