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Modern-Day ‘Black Robe’ Continues Tradition

July 17, 1985

DANIEL, Wyo. (AP) _ Indians called them Black Robes, the priests who challenged the western wilderness nearly 150 years ago to capture the souls of the Indians and mountain men.

A Jesuit Black Robe invited by the Salish tribe of southwestern Montana conducted the first Catholic Mass in Wyoming in 1840, and a modern-day Black Robe, the Rev. Tony Short, has commemorated that event with a service on the same spot, a high bluff above the Green River in western Wyoming.

A little stone building, erected in 1925 by the valley’s Knights of Columbus, shelters a marble cross and marker showing the spot where the Rev. Pierre DeSmet said Mass on July 5, 1840, at the Green River Rendezvous for mountain men, traders, and Indians.

Short, a priest assigned to the St. Stephen’s Mission on the nearby Wind River Reservation, made a few modern concessions in Sunday’s anniversary Mass.

He wore modern vestments and used a portable public address system so the 150 people who attended could hear him.

But his altar was an Indian blanket spread on the ground and his chalice was a piece of Indian pottery. And when someone suggested that owners remove their dogs, he said, ″Your dogs are fine. You can be sure there were dog fights at the first Mass here.″

There were cattle grazing below during Short’s Mass, and the people came in cars instead of on horseback, and the Knights of Columbus wore their plumed hats, capes, swords, and tuxedos to stand in the sagebrush.

Short apologized for bringing no Indians with him, saying a tribal meeting conflicted with the Mass.

History buff Charlie Perillonx, of Baton Rouge, La., read an account of DeSmet’s Mass and described the event as being ″in the peaks of the wilderness where the holy words had never before been given to the wind.″

DeSmet, a Flemish priest, was a ″bridge between the two worlds″ of white people and Indians, who said his Mass in French and English, with an interpreter for the Indians, Short said.

DeSmet was sent to the Rockies by bishops in St. Louis, who had been asked by the Salish tribe to send the Black Robes to them. The Salish had learned of the Black Robes from Canadian Iroquois Indians, Short said.

Because the American Catholic bishops had acted quickly, the Jesuits beat Protestant missionaries to the Rockies by several years.

Short said DeSmet stopped at the Green River Rendezvous on his way to establish the St. Mary’s Mission near Stevensville, Mont.

He roamed the Rockies for many years, meeting the Shoshone at the Green River, the Arapaho near Laramie, and the Salish and Flathead in Montana, Short said. He died in St. Louis in 1873.

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