A few weeks earlier I posted a review of Nick Ripatrazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction . Longing for an Absent God explores both the identities of significant Catholic novelists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and their vision of life as impacted by Catholic upbringing. For example, the noted author Flannery O’Connor observes that the Catholic novelist begins from the vantage point of Original Sin, or the flawed imperfections of human subjects, and works along the tortuous road of seeking God’s ever-present grace.
One such author is Louise Erdrich [1954-] who in a 1995 interview stated that she was raised "with all the accepted truths" of Catholicism alongside significant rooting in her Ojibwe Native American roots in Minnesota. Ripatrazone highlights her work as an example of Catholic cross-cultural experience, as many of her novels are inspired by Native American life. I was intrigued by the title of her 2001 work, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and even more so by the premise, a most unusual marriage of Catholic and Ojibwe life.
As this story goes, in 1996 a chancery bureaucrat, Father Jude Miller, is sent to a remote Ojibwe reservation near the U.S.-Canada border to investigate a report of miracles attributed to a Sister Leopolda, a deceased member of the convent community at the reservation. For many decades, the reservation Catholic church has been shepherded by Father Damian Modeste, now in extreme old age and in many ways sheltered and protected by the tribe for his long and faithful service. Father Damian rouses himself for his visitor, for he has much to share…and much more to hide.
Father Damian’s biggest secret is his identity. He is not a priest. He is in fact Agnes DeWitt, who came to pastor this church back in 1912. Her journey began in a convent as a seventeen-year-old postulant who was deriving excessive worldly pleasure from her mastery of Chopin at the piano. Young Agnes leaves the convent in fulfillment of her carnal pursuits and settles for a time with a powerful common law arrangement with a farmer-lover until their relationship is untimely and tragically ended. When Agnes has a near death experience in a natural catastrophe that kills the real Father Damian en route to his mission, Agnes decides to assume his identity in a conversion event that is part existential trauma and part coming home, so to speak, to what was most natural to her. In her first Mass upon arrival, for the convent community, “the Mass came to Agnes like memorized music. She had only to say the first words and all followed, ordered, instinctive. The phrases were in her and part of her. Once she began, the flow was like the river that had carried her to Little No Horse. In the silence between the parts of the ritual, Father Damian prayed for these women in his charge.” [p. 68]
If the sacramental role was assumed so naturally, life among the Ojibwe would be a greater challenge. Her first pastoral crisis, literally hours after her arrival, involved a tribal dispute over wives. This elongated scene introduces not only the major players and families who will love and challenge the priest throughout Father Damian’s career, but it puts into focus the ambiguity that many Catholic missionaries have faced in their attempts to overlay a Western European Christian creed and code upon an indigenous culture. One of the undercurrents of the community of Little No Horse was the gnawing sense of defeat and ongoing irritation at the intrusion of European, and later American, colonialists. In an NPR interview on this book in 2001, the author cited a quote from the Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly, “Conversion is the most loving form of destruction.”
Perhaps as a woman Agnes has a finer appreciation of “loving destruction” and exercises her ministry accordingly. For while she sublimates her earlier feminine experiences of intimacy and love for the sake of her pastorate, she never eradicates her past from her living memory. Her resolve is tested when a younger priest is sent to the mission by the bishop to hone his pastoral skills under Father Damian’s tutelage. It is here that Agnes must make a second conversion, a rededication to her missionary work.
Agnes/Damian, over many years, comes to appreciate and respect her people, in the aggregate and as individuals. Many were Catholic, a good number were not, but Agnes developed close ties with those who eschewed public commitment to a foreign church or, like the tribal elder Nanapush, embraced an earthy but profound wisdom of life from his ancestry and personal observations. Over the chessboard one summer afternoon Damian accuses Nanapush of trickery in his strategy. Nanapush replies, “You’ve been tricking everybody! Still, that is what your spirits have instructed you to do, so you must do it. Your spirits must be powerful to require such a sacrifice.” [p. 232] Nanapush maintains a respectful silence, however, as do the few others who know or suspect that Father Damian is a woman.
The most significant threat to Agnes’ secret comes just before the end of her life in 1996, when the visitator investigating Sister Leopolda’s sainthood cause makes an extended stay, which opens his tired, middle-aged eyes to a great many mysteries beyond Leopolda. But those “demanding spirits,” as Nanapush called them, intervened in salvific ways, if not conventional ones.
If we were to recommend Last Report to a Catholic reading circle, what points of discussion would we submit to the facilitator. Of course, one can argue that this work belongs nowhere near a Catholic endeavor, given the deceit upon which the story line rests. [In August 2020, a priest in Detroit discovered on a home video that his infant baptism was defective and invalid, and thus his ordination to the priesthood was invalid as well. See story.] I do not condone deceit, either, and objectively speaking, Agnes DeWitt’s assumption of the priestly role was wrong on many levels. I would point, though, that our actual Catholic experience in the United States is hardly free from clerical and episcopal deceits. We have learned in recent years that functioning priests were active pedophiles, routinely reassigned by complicit bishops. Are these deceits less egregious than Father Damian’s? Again, as Flannery O’Connor reminds us, the Catholic novelist writes from the ground up, from sin to conversion.
The most obvious talking point would seem to be the issue of women’s ordination, but to raise that issue here is not faithful to the novel’s text. Agnes does not present as a woman priest. The struggle over her role as a Catholic cleric is an internal one, not a tribal issue. It is highly unlikely that the Ojibwe patriarchal mores would have accepted a woman priest in 1912. Moreover, Agnes herself feared that the inevitable discovery of her true sex after her death would shake the Catholic community, leading her to some extraordinary means to prevent this from happening.
However, this novel does raise valuable questions about the priesthood itself and the fashion in which it is lived. There are three priest figures in the tale—Agnes, the young associate, and the chancery visitator. All of them are broken people in some sense, and all are impacted—one can argue favorably--by encounter with the Ojibwe reservation. One can reflect upon a clerical life that tends toward the one dimensional, i.e., a life which resists the impact of two-way encounter in which the baptized enrich their shepherds as much as the other way around. One can argue that even the faux priest dies rich from a life of such communion, a point that is not lost on the visitator, who begins to wonder if he is investigating the wrong saint.
There is, to be sure, food for thought in this story about “evangelization.” In my youth we called it “missionary work,” and every self-respecting seminarian was expected to go through a phase of reflection about going to foreign lands. My order had extensive missions in Bolivia, Jamaica, and Japan, among other places. I will admit that I did not give it much thought, but I understood the common wisdom of the time, “to make disciples of all nations.” In recent years there has been much public discussion about whether the missionaries to what is now the United States were unintentionally colonialists as much as evangelizers to Native American peoples.
The template of Father Damian’s mission to the Ojibwe is remarkably sound. Vatican II permitted liturgical accommodations for the needs of indigenous peoples, but this story for the most part predates the Council [1962-1965] and the Latin Mass would have been normative, even on the reservation. The mission church provided regular confessions, communion was brought to the sick, and those unbaptized were visited and invited by Father Damian. But it was the priest’s willingness to share the full life of the tribe that seemed to have been his most effective witness. Reservation life was harsh by any measure. [Even in 1996, the visitator went offsite when possible for good coffee and hamburgers]. Father Damian mastered to a fair degree the Ojibwe language—no mean feat—and engaged in the various celebrations and sorrows of the community’s life.
Perhaps the greatest witness was the dedication of one entire life to the community. “Greater love than this no man hath, to lay down his life…” There is a universal message here about “making converts.” Talk, even religious talk, is cheap without the sacramental sign of engagement at cost. Agnes DeWitt/Father Damian, the priest without portfolio, crossed a cultural divide to bring a universal experience of Christ, by staying for the long haul to underwrite her message.
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