The Northwest Mission Area History: Part 1

The Rev. Steve Schaitberger

The Northwest Mission Area History: Part 1

In honor of the 164th Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota being broadcast from Bemidji, the Rev. Steve Schaitberger created this comprehensive history. 

The Northwest Mission Area is the source of two major water flowage:  The Red River of the North flows into Hudson Bay and the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Glaciers formed thousands of lakes in our area and created what is known as the Lakes and Pines ecosystem. Our Mission Area was home to several ancient hunter and gatherer cultures that first settled in what is now Minnesota.

The first Episcopal presence in the Northwest Mission Area came about with the founding of St. Columba Church and Mission in 1852 located at Gull Lake north of present day Brainerd.

St. Columba was planted by Enmegahbowh and James Lloyd Breck, at the invitation of Chief Hole in the Day.  The mission consisted of a schoolhouse and a chapel. The school was a day school in the Ojibwe village at Gull Lake.  The Curriculum consisted of the 4 R’s: Reading, wRiting, aRithmathic, and Religion. In 1868 the mission moved to White Earth reservation where it has continued to worship to this day.  From 1852 to the early 1880’s this mission was the primary focus of the National Episcopal Church for Native American Ministry.  Support consisted of lay ministers and money. A Hospital was built by the Episcopal Church on the White Earth Reservation. Several Native Americans leaders were formed for ordination and lay ministry led by Enmegahbowh and Archdeacon Joseph Gilfillan.

The church of St. Columba was the mother church that expanded the Episcopal presence to the three major reservations of our Northwest Missionary Area:  Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth.  At one time over 20 congregations existed on these reservations. The strategy was to plant small churches in a big way. By the late 1880 the National Church Native American financial support extended to dioceses of the west. Minnesota chose to support our reservation churches without financial help from the national church. Thus the diocese felt they were supporting indirectly the wider Native American missions beyond our diocese in gratitude for the decades of support from the National Church. Approximately one third of the Indians on the reservation declared that they were Episcopalians.

Western Expansion of the railroad came to our area in the early 1870’s which resulted in the founding of towns located about 15 miles apart as that was the distance farmers could travel round trip in a day for supplies.  Farms were small and numerous thanks to the Homestead Act. Soon Whipple gothic churches were built in these towns.  Episcopalians were generally part of the merchant and service and educational support communities of these small towns. This dynamic eventually led to the concentration of Churches in cities of larger populations of 5,000 to 10,000. Since Episcopalians were so involved with our Native American friends, we had less appeal to the European immigrants who settled to farm in this area; many of whom saw Native Americans as a threat.

In 1895 the Northwest Mission Area became part of the newly created Missionary Diocese of Duluth. The mining and lumbering industries provided financial stability and jobs that brought new people to our area. The larger towns prospered in this period and extended support to smaller towns. The reservations received generous support from the Diocese of Duluth. This prosperous growth ended when the depression brought economic disaster to the mining industry; all our congregations suffered. The diocese of Duluth decided to reunite with the Diocese of Minnesota in 1944. The laity voted overwhelmingly to reunite; the clergy were divided by only one vote in favor to reunite.