Native American Church Faces Closure

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In Milwaukee, one of the nation's only Native American Catholic churches may have to either close or merge with a Hispanic congregation. But congregants are resisting the move.


You don't expect to see a gigantic Native American drum and a pile of sacrificial tobacco leaves on the altar of a Roman Catholic church, but that's exactly what you'll see at the Congregation of the Great Spirit. This small church on the south side of Milwaukee is the first to mix Native American ways with the Catholic gospel. The pews are filled every Sunday, but the Milwaukee Archdiocese recently eliminated funding for the unique church. As NPR's Carol Van Dam reports, congregants now wonder if their form of worship will survive.

CAROL VAN DAM: Father Ed Cook is not your ordinary Roman Catholic priest. He's sitting at a small, battered desk with his shoulder-length gray hair pulled into a pony tail, wearing a silver hoop earring and a worn-out T-shirt. He describes a diocesan meeting he attended with Milwaukee's archbishop in the late 1980s, the goal being to address racism.

Reverend ED COOK (Pastor, Congregation Of The Great Spirit, Milwaukee): They must have liked me because they kept inviting me back, and wanting to know if I could have services.

VAN DAM: Shortly after that, the archbishop asked Father Cook to head up a new church for Native Americans. But now the diocese has fallen on hard times, and Father Cook finds it increasingly difficult to tend to his flock.

Reverend COOK: It's true we are a very poor parish here. Now there are some people, obviously, that have more money than others, but there are some people here who have absolutely nothing. And they might be street people. And there are people who are just hanging on by the, you know, skin of their teeth.

VAN DAM: At a typical church, donations may cover the priest's living expenses. But here the jobless rate is far higher than the national average. Alcoholism is rampant.

Reverend COOK: This week, we've just been through, like, four funerals. At least one of the funerals was absolutely - I mean, this was just poverty and a very, very sad tale of the liver gone, kidneys failing, big problems that way. And so the question always is from the funeral director or from the family, how much does it cost to bury people? And we say it doesn't cost anything.

VAN DAM: During the funeral ceremonies, the families offer tobacco as payment, an Indian tradition. At Sunday Mass it's all there - the first and second readings, the gospel, the homily, the offertory, and communion - and yet everything looks and sounds different. To the left of the altar, the Virgin Mary is draped in a beautiful Indian woman's dance shawl. To the right, a bright Pendleton wool blanket is wrapped around the Sacred Heart. At the foot of the altar sits a large hand-woven basket where the four traditional Indian medicines of tobacco, sage, sweet grass, and cedar will be burned in a sacred fire.

(Soundbite of Lakota Song)

VAN DAM: The smoke from the pyre symbolically purifies the parishioners as they sing the four directions Lakota song. Osmel Raynoza(ph) is an Apache whose first name means medicine warrior. When he was a young boy, Raynoza says, he felt forced to leave behind the traditions of his grandfather and great-grandmother in order to attend Catholic Mass. Raynoza felt he had to choose one or the other.

Mr. OSMEL RAYNOZA: I walked away from the Catholicism for many years, and then I came back again. And then here at the Congregation of the Great Spirit, they taught me, you know, how to put both things together like a beautiful recipe in my spiritual walk. And so now I feel more at ease.

VAN DAM: Like a dozen or so others at this Mass, Sister Mary Mark(ph) doesn't have a drop of Indian blood in her. But after spending 21 years in the West Indies where she helped run a hospital, she feels a strong affinity with this congregation.

Sister MARY MARK (Nun, Congregation Of The Great Spirit, Milwaukee): There are many things that are culturally the same between the West Indian and the Native American. Their outlook on many things is the same. I was more comfortable in this culture than I was back in the white culture.

VAN DAM: Sister Mary Mark says it would be a tragedy if this special church were to close because of a lack of money. Father Cook notes that the actual building, a white stone Lithuanian Church built decades ago, is paid for. He says the congregation isn't looking for handouts. The archdiocese says the church may soon be shuttered if parishioners can't pay the bills. If that happens, scores of Native Americans in Wisconsin fear they'll lose not only a place where they feel comfortable praying, but a place that honors their identity, both as Catholics and Native Americans. Carol Van Dam, NPR News.

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