When 12-year-old Thomas Foley opened a shoebox in his Aunt Mame’s closet more than 65 years ago, he unwittingly uncovered the building blocks for a remarkable story of faith, courage and determination.
The box contained the personal journals and papers of Father Francis Craft, a 19th-century missionary to American Indians who died in the arms of Foley’s father in 1920. The treasure trove of documents included a letter from Sitting Bull and handwritten religious vows taken by young Lakota Sioux women, along with a photograph of Father Craft.
The boy’s discovery was the first step in what would become a lifelong quest to learn more about an independent-minded, forward-thinking priest and the first women’s religious order for American Indians, which he founded.
‘Among the people’His research took the author to monasteries and Indian reservations in the Dakotas, and archives in Washington, New York, Belgium and Rome.
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In the book, Foley tells the story of how the Congregation of American Sisters came to be, its many struggles and its ultimate dissolution.
“Father Craft was way ahead of his time,” said Foley, who wrote a biography of Father Craft in 2002. “He was a medical doctor, and he taught these women nursing skills. Father Craft’s sisters were among the people.”
Father Craft, who was part Mohawk, had a fundamental respect for American Indians and treated them with dignity, according to Foley.
“If you look at the pictures of his sisters, they look like pictures of sisters anywhere else in the world,” said Foley, a retired labor personnel executive who lives in Georgia. “He was presenting these sisters as equal to any coming out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
An Episcopalian who became a Catholic and a former soldier who enlisted at age 10 in the Union Army during the Civil War, Father Craft joined the Jesuits in 1876. He left the religious order to become a missionary to American Indians and in 1883 was ordained by Bishop Martin Marty to serve the Dakota Territory.
Father Craft, who was injured in the battle at Wounded Knee, first served in the Dakotas on the Rosebud Reservation before moving to Standing Rock Reservation and then Fort Berthold. He often butted heads with religious and governmental authorities, some of whom regarded him as an eccentric crank.
Remembering a heroic effortThe Congregation of American Sisters grew to about a dozen sisters at its height in the 1890s. It ultimately ended as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament — St. Katharine Drexel’s religious order devoted to American Indians and African-Americans — increased in popularity. St. Katharine funded her outreach with a $15 million inheritance.
Asked what he wanted readers to remember from his book, Foley choked up for a moment before responding.
“There’s a place and a time where people embarked on heroic efforts and 100 years later, no one knows or cares,” he said. “They tried so hard for a decade. I want people to know what they tried to accomplish.” Catholic Spirit