Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Historic Mission

". . .I want to tell you something about our church at Saint Stephens. I talk often about it. I know how it started. I was baptized by the priests who came to start the mission. . .We gave the land of our own to them to put up a school for our children. We sent our children to that school because they took good care of them. All learned to talk English. All learn to speak about God. We see them. How they pray in Church. And they also learn to pray in our own language. We feel good about that. . "
~ Lone Bear, Arapaho Chief (1840 - 1920) ~

The Saint Stephens Indian Mission was founded in 1884 when Father John Jutz offered Mass at Chief Black Coal's camp, which had been located along the banks of the Little Wind River. The original site had been near the confluence of the Little and Big Wind Rivers, south of Riverton. Since the original site was far too sandy and was prone to yearly flooding 1886, the Mission was moved to its current location (St. Stephens) which is on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Reservation is home to two tribes: the Arapahoe and the Shoshone.

The original church building, as well as the boy's dormitory, was destroyed in a devastating fire on January 20, 1928. The church was completely rebuilt and finished in time for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve of 1928.

The church as undergone a number of face lifts, the latest and on-going renovations began the summer of 1995.

The exterior of the church is decorated with Arapaho symbols, each repeated on both sides of the building. These symbols represent the world around us, each with a specific meaning.

It was impossible to get good photos of the stained glass windows, but they can be seen here. I think parts of the windows would make wonderful quilt blocks.

The Cross at the center of the ceiling artwork is formed by the joining of four duplicates of an Arapaho symbol for a person. The base of each design is standing at the four directions of the earth. The white line running through the center of each of the person-symbols or branch of the cross symbolizes that Christ should be our center and the guiding force in our lives. The fact that each symbol is joined at its base, encircling the world, shows that we are all creations of God and should be united as such. On each side of the Cross is a modified quilt design with mountain symbols representing the four directions. These designs are reaching out to show that the Word of God can reach anywhere and anyone. At the front and back of the ceiling design are cloud symbols reaching to the earth, much the same way that God is reaching out to us.

The Baptismal Font and the Altar were constructed to resemble drums. During pow-wows, the drum called the people together, letting them know that the festivities were about to start. The People would come. The beat of the drum the heartbeat of the Indian People. That heartbeat has always done its best to stay in rhythm with Creation and the Creator.

Behind the Altar are intersecting tipi poles. In the past, bare tipi poles left standing were an indication that the tribe or family had to pack and leave quickly, usually to escape some impending danger. The Crucified Christ hanging over the bare tipi poles symbolizes that no matter what calamity befalls us, Christ is always with us and will see us through the dark times in our lives as well as the good.

To the left of the Altar is the Creation Mural which depicts the earth as an Indian maiden, rising out of the power of the universe. As a representation of the earth, she holds in her hands the beginning of life; the flora and fauna. Soaring behind the maiden is the eagle, representing the spirit of life.

To the right of the Altar is the Resurrection Mural, depicting the spirit of humanity rising up after death. Lifted up out of the stormy waters of sin and darkness, the human spirit reaches up to the Creator. The power of the resurrection is symbolized by the dove emerging from the Spirit of God. The path to Christ and heaven is depicted with the eagle feathers that humanity should follow to get to heaven's gate. Taken from the darkness of death, our spirits are greeted by our families, friends, and those who have gone before us. We will be welcomed into the Creator's Lodge, where we will know no want, need, or hunger.

Above the exit door is another mural. Against the backdrop of a star quilt design, the eagle, along with the Arapaho Flag, a Rosary and feathers challenge us as we leave the Church, to live in peace with one another, to help those in need, and to walk humbly with God in our every day activities.


  1. What a pretty church...I love all the art...unusual and beautiful.

  2. Thanks for the interesting tour. You were able to get some good pictures. It was a beautiful day for a visit. The sky is especially pretty.

  3. Thank-you so very much for sharing this mission. My son is working on his masters (history) and he also read this and said it is very beautiful! I agree!

  4. What a beautiful church building. Your photos were wonderful. And yes.. I was just going to say, some of those paintings would make lovely quilt patterns. :-)


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