JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: A brief history of St. Mary's Mission in Red Lake

Here is an article I wrote for the Beltrami County Historical Society a few months ago. It is timely due to the recent burning of the church on Saturday, Dec. 2.

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Here is an article I wrote for the Beltrami County Historical Society a few months ago. It is timely due to the recent burning of the church on Saturday, Dec. 2.

The arrival of Fathers Francis Xavier Pierz and Rev. Lawrence Lautischar in 1858 marked the beginning of St. Mary's Mission on the Red Lake Reservation in north central Minnesota.

After Father Lautischar's untimely death in a snowstorm, Father Ignatius Tomazin, a Yugoslav missionary succeeded Father Lawrence. Tomazin began immediately to organize the mission. He built a log church and a lean-to parsonage and a cemetery. Services were held in the church on Christmas Day, 1879.

Tomazin started a day school for the children and taught them to read their own language and to sing the Ojibwe hymns.

In 1888, two Benedictine Sisters converted an abandoned Hudson Bay Co.'s warehouse into a school. In spite of its poor condition, the school opened with an enrollment of 25-day pupils in 1888.


Also in 1888, Katherine Drexel, the daughter of a wealthy banker in Philadelphia, begged the abbot of St. John's Abbey to take over the mission. In November 1889, two priests, Fathers Simon Lampe and Thomas Borgerding from St. John's Abbey, along with Sisters Amalia Eich and Evangelista McNulty from St. Benedict's Convent, made the arduous trip to Red Lake.

In 1893, Congress made it compulsory to speak only English in school. In mission schools, these laws were upheld because it was the government that paid pupil costs. Father Thomas reported, "We ran the mission largely according to our own ideas and no outside force set the educational standards for us." Even though English was taught in compliance with the government, Father Thomas taught Ojibwe whenever he could.

Building got underway for a new church in 1893. In June of that year, the church was almost complete. Enrollment climbed to 80 by 1900.

The people considered Father Thomas a great and holy man. He always had time for them. It is said that he wore his religious habit even while working around the farm machinery. He served the Red Lake Mission for 35 years and departed in July 1923.

Ninety students enrolled in school in 1924. Father Simon Lampe had replaced Father Thomas. Father Simon was gifted and proficient in languages including Ojibwe. Father Florian assisted him. The annual report in 1924 showed 215 Catholic families and 900 parishioners.

In addition to Father Thomas Borgerding, other prominent priests were Father Florian was known for supporting baseball and basketball. Father Egbert Goeb was known for his farming methods and herd development, which gave the mission a 75-head registered Jersey herd.

In 1929, a new school building rose beside the old. It contained four classrooms and a large gymnasium. In 1958, the name of the building was changed to Drexel Hall in honor of the memory of Mother Katharine Drexel, the Mission's great benefactress.

As many as 14 sisters a year staffed the Mission in the 1930s each receiving a stipend of $100 per year. In 1932, there were 200 students. The school was threatened to close in 1940 due to loss of status as a boarding school.


The Golden Age of the Mission was in the 1950s when enrollment topped 254. The Mission farm reached an all-time high in production. One hundred eighty acres of arable land were in use. In 1974, the church was experiencing financial problems. The farm closed in 1975.

In 1991, Monsignor William Mehrkens' arrival from the Diocese of Crookston marked the end of the Benedictine pastorate, which had a span of 108 years. The number of sisters serving the Mission from St. Benedict's dropped from eight in 1989-90 and to two in 1991-92.

Father Bill was intent and eager to pursue a program to visit the parishioners. A second priority was to continue to integrate Native tradition with the Catholic liturgy.

September 29, 1993, marked the 100th anniversary of St. Mary's Church.

In the 1990s, approximately 1,500 of the 4,000 Ojibwe living on the reservation at this time were baptized members of St. Mary's parish.

St. Mary's Mission School today provides preschool through sixth grade schooling enriched with faith and the Anishinaabe culture for any child living on the Red Lake Reservation. Mike Haugen serves as principal and Father Jerry Rogers serves the Mission in 2017.

On Dec. 2, 2017, the church burned down, but leaders are confident a new church rise will rise from the ashes.

Riddle: What did the bunny say on January 1st? Hoppy new year! Everyone wishes the St. Mary's Mission and school a blessed and happy new year with hopes for a new church and continued success with the school. It has survived many challenges in the past and, without any doubt, will proceed to do so in the future.


John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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