It’s hard to imagine an American alive who hasn’t seen a movie or TV show about life on the American frontier. We’re all familiar with legendary frontiersmen such as Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. But outside of serious students of Church history, few know the names of Catholic frontier missionary evangelists such as Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, Dominican Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, or Father Francis Craft, a diocesan priest.
That oversight is about to be remedied! Your view of both Catholic and American history will be forever changed when you tune into the EWTN Original Documentary “Faith on the Frontier.” The one-hour program premieres 10 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Sept. 25, and re-airs at 10 a.m. ET, Thursday, Sept. 26 on EWTN. The premiere will be preceded by an “EWTN Live” with “Faith on the Frontier” Writer, Director, and Producer James Kelty at 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Sept. 25.
“You will leave this film with a distinct feeling of friendship with these men,” Kelty said. “These were strong men, strong priests, strong missionaries, who braved incredible challenges and difficulties in a tempestuous period of American life. Although these men never knew each other, each had a huge impact on the development of Catholicism in the U.S. from the Midwest to the Upper Plains to the Far West.”
At the end of this program, you’ll also learn which of these priests is on track to one day be canonized.”” Here’s a quick snapshot of the three priests to wet your appetite for learning more.
“Fr. Francis Craft was a survivor of the Battle of Wounded Knee. He tried to separate the warring parties and got stabbed in the middle of it,” Kelty said. “A wild man who was good with a six shooter,” Fr. Craft braved winter storms on the Great Plains while on horseback during the 1870s and ‘80s in an effort to convert the Lakota and Sioux tribes.
At the time, it was generally accepted that it was not possible for the Native Americans to be converted. But Fr. Craft not only evangelized the tribes, he never wavered in his resolve to found an order of Lakota/Sioux sisters. He was determined to prove that the Indians could be of service to their own people – and he did!
“Father Pierre-Jean De Smet of Belgium was “a colossus of a man and a priest,” says Kelty. He arrived in the fur trading outpost of St. Louis a mere 20 years after the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. He spent 20 years preparing for what he always knew was his destiny to travel west. That preparation included learning many of the Indian languages.
When the time came to make the trip west, which was arduous for the most fit of pioneers, he fell ill with malaria. Incredibly, he didn’t let that stop him. Kelty says he spent most of the trip “flat out on a wagon,” suffering for three days with no water when his fever was highest, and enduring outbreaks of violence that included travelers biting off each other’s noses. That sheer grit and ability to speak the native languages allowed him to successfully evangelize the Salish (or “Flathead”) tribe in Idaho.
Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli was an Italian Dominican, who set off for Cincinnati and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with no money and no ability to speak the Native American languages, trusting in God to guide him. Even though he was well aware that the Jesuits had been expelled from the area in the 1830s and hadn’t seen a “black robe” in 70 years, Fr. Mazzuchelli, as an architect and church builder, managed to found and build 43 separate parishes.
The above is just a snapshot of what these men endured to bring the faith to America. Follow in the footsteps of these frontiersmen, as Kelty and his crew travel to Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Montana and to the parishes – still there! – that these men were responsible for building.
Of course, it takes a lot of teamwork to put together such a film. Kelty thanks EWTN Director of Acquisitions John Elson for the name “Faith on the Frontier,” and his staff for brainstorming the concept. He credits Marquette University Archivist Mark Thiel for recommending the priests featured and for providing him with a constant stream of important information, Dominican Sister Mary Ewens, for helping him understand how Fr. Craft founded a Native American order of nuns, and Jesuit Father Michael F. Steltenkamp, for helping him understand the ways that Jesuit missionaries were able to go into Native American communities and evangelize.
“The Knights of Columbus chapter in Galina, Illinois rebuilt one of Fr. Mazzuchelli’s churches, St. Augustine, in a tiny hamlet near Galina,” Kelty said. “We filmed that. His communities along the Mississippi river are still very devoted to him.”
But there is one name Kelty mentions whose impact was far greater than any of the above.
“So many times, God has stepped in and helped me do this,” Kelty said. “We had amazing things happen in our favor: snowstorms coming in, fog clearing, sun breaking through just when we needed it. We had a Montana snowstorm, which was spectacular. I’ve gotten film production values that people spend fortunes to recreate in studios. Atmospheric wonder is one thing, as a filmmaker, I felt fortunate and blessed to get.”
Come, experience the wonder of America’s frontier priests when “Faith on the Frontier” premieres on EWTN.