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Portrait of Francis Pierz from the book about his life written by Florentin Hrovat in 1887
Statue of Francis Xavier Pierz in front of St. Cloud Hospital

Francis Xavier Pierz (Slovene: Franc Pirc or Franc Pirec; German: Franz Pierz) (1785-1880) was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary to the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians. Because he was also responsible for attracting large numbers of Catholic German Americans to settle in Central Minnesota, he is referred to as "The Father of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud".

Contents

Early life

Father Pierz was born on November 20, 1785 to a peasant family in Godica, near the Carniolan town of Kamnik in the Austrian Empire. He entered the seminary of Ljubljana in the fall of 1810 and was ordained on March 13, 1813 by Bishop Antonius Kautschitz. Two of his brothers also became priests.

After seven years as assistant pastor of the mountain parishes of Kranjska Gora and Fužine, he was appointed parish priest of the villages of Pece and Podbrezje. After years of attempting to improve farming methods among the poor farmers of his parish, he published the book Kranjski Vertnar (The Carniolan Gardner) in 1830. His efforts led to his being awarded a medal of honor by the Carniolan Agricultural Society in 1842.

Missionary

In 1835, Pierz departed for the missions of the United States after years of eagerly reading the letters of the Slovenian missionary priest, and future Bishop, Father Frederic Baraga. He arrived in the Diocese of Detroit on September 16, presenting his credentials to Bishop Frederick John Conrad Rese. As Lake Superior, had already frozen, Father Pierz was prevented from immediately joining Father Baraga in Wisconsin and was instead assigned to the Ottawa Indians of Cross Village. In the summer of 1836, Bishop Rese transferred him to the mission of Sault Ste. Marie, where Father Pierz fought to keep the struggling mission alive, while sailing to other missions around the shores of Lake Superior.

On June 28, 1838, he was finally able to visit Father Baraga at La Pointe, Wisconsin. After a very friendly visit, Baraga persuaded Father Pierz to re-establish the mission at Grand Portage, Minnesota. The formerly great trading post had been deeply affected by the decline of the fur trade, but the Ojibwa Indians who continued to live there had turned to harvesting the fish of Lake Superior and selling their catches to the American Fur Company. A "half breed" agent for the company, Pierre Picotte, had been carefully instructing them in the Catechism and preparing them to join the Catholic Church. Father Pierz's letters describe being deeply impressed by how easily the Ojibwa of Grand Portage embraced Catholicism.

It has been written since that Father Pierz did his best work in the short time he was stationed at Grand Portage.[citation needed] He arranged for the clearing of a plot of farmland which, in keeping with Indian ways, was owned and worked in common. The produce was sold to nearby white miners. A school was founded for the children of the mission. His letters provide a vivid glimpse into daily life on the mission. The missions at Fort William, Ontario and Isle Royale were also under his jurisdiction. But in October 1839, he was ordered to leave Grand Portage and take over the missions surrounding Harbor Springs, Michigan. He remained there for 12 years.

Minnesota

In Spring, 1852, after a series of disputes with his Bishop, Pierz secured a release from the Diocese of Detroit and departed for the newly founded Minnesota Territory. There Bishop Joseph Crétin was desperate for priests to serve his vast diocese.

Father Pierz was assigned a vast mission field, comprising the whole of Minnesota north of the Twin Cities. He established his headquarters at the drunken boomtown of Old Crow Wing, now the location of Crow Wing State Park. He traveled between his missions on foot, carrying on his back all that was necessary for saying Mass. The Ojibwa dubbed him, "Old Man, Black Gown," and viewing him as a man of great power, occasionally stole his socks as a folk remedy against rheumatism.

Promoter

After the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851, much of southern and central Minnesota was declared open to settlement. Father Pierz, noticing that settlement was by Protestant Yankees, began actively promoting Minnesota settlement among German-American Catholics. Writing in newspapers such as Der Wahrheitsfreund (The Friend of Truth), based in Cincinnati, Ohio, he wrote glowing descriptions of Minnesota's climate, its soil, and its large tracts of free land.

In May 1855, the first wave of German, Luxemburger, and Slovene settlers began to arrive in large numbers, staking out claims throughout what is today Morrison County, Benton County, and Stearns County, Minnesota. With his bishop unable to finance his work, Father Pierz began to rely on the Ludwig-Missionsverein and the Leopoldinen-Stiftung for desperately needed funds. Both organizations had been formed to finance Catholic missionaries abroad and were mainly funded by the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach and the Austro-Hungarian House of Habsburg.

Finding himself unable to single-handedly look after both the settlers and the Ojibwa, Father Pierz pleaded with Bishop Crétin to send more priests to assist him. The Bishop responded by writing to Abbot Boniface Wimmer of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. On May 21, 1856 a party of five Benedictine priests disembarked from a steamboat at Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. Saint John's Abbey traces its foundation to their arrival. Father Pierz, unable to be there to greet them, had left behind a letter for the party's leader, Father Demetrius de Marogna. The letter formally transferred his missions in and around Sauk Rapids to the jurisdiction of the Benedictine Order.

In 1863, Father Pierz sailed for Europe to recruit additional priests for the Minnesota missions. Among those who returned with him were Father Joseph Buh, Father Ignaz Tomazin, and Father (later Bishop) James Trobec.

Last years and death

In 1871, Father Pierz reluctantly accepted the limitations of age and retired to a parish at the French Canadian settlement of Rich Prairie, Morrison County (now Pierz, Minnesota).

In the Fall of 1873, he sailed for Slovenia, where he intended to live out the last years of his life. After spending the winter at the Franciscan monastery in his native Kamnik, he moved to Ljubljana, where he remained a permanent guest in the Archdiocesan Chancery. Father Pierz succumbed to senile dementia, dying on January 22, 1880. After a traditional Requiem Mass, he was interred in Saint Christopher's Cemetery, Ljubljana. This cemetery was razed during World War II and Father Pierz's remains now rest in an unmarked grave.

Legacy

Father Pierz continues to be fondly remembered in both his native land and in central Minnesota. A statue of him was dedicated in front of St. Cloud Hospital in 1952. He remains a popular figure in Minnesota folklore, with stories about him passed down among both the Ojibwa and the Catholics of the area. The town of Pierz, Minnesota is named in his honor.

In Slovenia, a bronze monument to him stands in Podbrezje, his last parish assignment before leaving for America. A massive collection of his letters and poetry are preserved in the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia in Ljubljana. Also, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum possesses a large number of rare Indian artifacts that were collected and donated by Father Pierz.

Quotes

"A missioner in America is like a plaything in the hand of God. Sufferings and joys alternate constantly. No conquest for the Kingdom can be achieved here without exertion and the sweat of one’s brow. Our dear Lord permits us to be humiliated and prepared by much suffering before he employs us as instruments of His mercy in the conversion of the Pagans and allows us to enjoy the comforts of soul their spiritual rebirth causes."[1]

Legends

"I remember an incident of Father Pierz and a man named Dugal, the Government blacksmith at Crow Wing. This Dugal was quite pious but went on a spree once in a while - once a month. And Father Pierz would meet him in this condition and say to him in French, You are drunk again, my pig. Once, on a trip to Leech Lake, Father Pierz got a hold of Dugal's supply of whiskey and only gave it out to him in small portions. Dugal begged for the bottle but Pierz said, No, no, you my pig. Dugal when drunk feared Pierz. Once as he saw Pierz entering a store and knowing he was under a good supple of liquor, Dugal hid himself under a buffalo robe. But Pierz chatted and stayed so long that Dugal finally gave up and, casting off the robe, said, Father, I confess!"[2]

References

  1. ^ Father Pierz to Father Augustine Sluga of Kranj, Slovenia, May 1, 1836. From a translation published by the Central-Blatt and Social Justice, May 1934.
  2. ^ "Stories of Father Pierz," collected on the White Earth Reservation during the 1920s by Father Benno Watrin, OSB. Taken from the Archives of the College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Resources

  • Furlan, William. "In Charity Unfeigned: The Life of Father Francis X. Pierz," St. Cloud, Minnesota: Diocese of Saint Cloud, 1952.
  • Voigt, Robert. "Crow Wing and Father Pierz," St. Cloud, Minnesota: Diocese of Saint Cloud, 1989.
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