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Priests for the Potawatomi

This poem is dedicated to my Dad. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. We visited Iowa often as kids. We’d go to my Uncle Jerry’s farm in a place called St. Charles. He owned a Dairy Queen there. The memories of the farm and the ice cream are indelible.

Sunset over the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa

A weathered old man
With whisker-stubble
Stubbled like straw
Leftover stover
Of mowed corn over
Near willow wood
With Whippoorwill
Shrill and swallow.

He rocks and whittles
With a hickory hunting knife
On a rocking chair,
At the farmstead bungalow.
The wind makes a sudden show,
Like from some age old fable
Makes shutters slap
And the wood board clap
On the porch beneath the gable.

His name is Leon or Dwayne
Even Dudley with a walking cane
I forget which name,
They all seem to blend together
They hum for the century
As the ivy crawls on the brick
Of old St. Peter’

Big Sioux River heading into the Dakotas

I ask:
Which way to Sioux City, sir?

He startles, stutters and speaks.

Where did you come from, boy?

Now, any rail will take you there, son.
Listen for Miss Dinah blow
Her horn for old Ogallala.
Don’t fear, that horn,
For it ain’t Gabriel yet.
Though it ought to be.
It’s the 3 o’clock
Council Bluff train.
Get to the river and go right,
Or jump into the box car
With the hobo boys
And pay them no mind
But just a wooden nickel.

Under his breathe he grumbles:

It’s hotter than blazes today
Wouldn’t mind
Fresh squeezed lemonade
From Mother Miriam
And listen to old Jerry play

Wipes his forehead with a handkerchief
An offering to Veronica.

Son, Let me tell you about history
Our story, their story,
Down dowel woven time.
It is a limping sort of rhyme
Like this poem here
Seems cobbled together
But there’s a spirit
That makes it more sublime.

See, it ain’t the train
Whistling the stop
That’s history.
It is that wind near the ground,
Sweeps like a ghost
Washes like the rain
The storm’s debris.
The wind, that’s history
It ain’t seeable
But foreseeable
To a degree,
And like the train,
It ain’t necessarily always on time
That’s what bothers me most.

The cross of Iowa

He lifts his head and looks at me
And like a mad old man
Makes a whistling sound with his lips
And wiggles his whittling knife.
All around his rocking chair
On the rickety old porch
Are shavings of willow chips
Since winter Webelos
Blizzard blows
Before ashes and spider webs
Old oak leaves and beetle shell.

The wind of history comes from yonder.

He points to the east
With the whittling knife
Careful to indicate
The compass point
With the point of the blade.

From round Davenport town,
Before Paul Bunyan,
You know, campfires and buffalo skin;
Before we planted onion
Before Dutch ovens and biscuits meals
Flint and steel
And rattling wheels

He brings the knife back and
Starts to shave the wood again

After the woods, comes the prairie;
After the prairie, come the plains.
Remember, the eastern fellows,
Pulled old stumps
That gripped the earth
From Adam after Eden’s mirth.
Took some trouble and bone marrow
To make a man, a meadow
But from that wood
They carved it into Virgins
In the morrow and with sorrow.

But there’s no forest here.
Ask the Potawatomi,
They’ll tell ya
On the prairie you pray
In the woods you worship
And you better pray before you venture
Onto the plains :
Sans Souci
Sauf sans Sioux.

I learnt a little French,
From those Jesus boys
While sitting here,
Watch stuff blow by;
Grumble to rake
While they mumble to make
Bread holy
In Latin words
And then clean dishes
And the chalice.

But wind wind-crown
With nimble finger twist
The Rolex second hand,
Swirl in a story.
Yep, I’m afraid
Rocking’s enough history for me
Like a grandfather clock
Slow tock and even
Uneven slower to talk.

Folks don’t stay for long
At Council Bluffs to date.
Before the dawn
They are out the turnstile gate.

The first that came
That Discovery Corps
Came out to first explore
And made some deals
Along the shore
And opened up the way
For the trading store.

Overlooking the Missouri River. Site where Sargent Floyd died. The only crew member to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804.

Most came for beaver fur
And married squaws
And some came to settle a score.
Others went on to Oregon
Some for ore by Rushmore
Some went on the Mormon trail.
Some came out to wage a war
But most were poor
With saddle sore
And just a few made more.

Those happy folks, were few
Parlayed their fur
For river land
Parlayed that land for rail
Parlayed the rail for telegraph
Parlayed the chatter and morse
For gold of course
And then parlayed the gold for denim.
A few parlayed the wealth they made
With Irish luck they hummed a hymn
Parlayed to pray the most for Jesus.

St. Patrick’s Church, Imogen Iowa. The Church was build through the tireless efforts of Fr. Hayes from Ireland who parlayed land into cattle, cattle into stock and then future. Funded the Church through entrepreneurial spirit. This Church was built in 1915/

But there were some
All robed in black
They did not whoop and holler.
They rather wore
That black soutane
And a white and humble collar.

Remember these priests
That prayed in the plains
That came from wooded hollows
And withstood the pains
To alleviate
The bitterness and sorrow.

So here’s a litany of Covenant
That’s Catholic and ours
And never a treaty did they break
But with toughness recalled the Hours.
They came to mediate
With broken bones and scalps of martyrs
With calloused hands in floods and rains
With softened heart withstood the pains
These are the saints of the prairies and the plains.

Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Nicholas Point, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Benjamin Petit, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Mathias Loras, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Pelamourgues, pray for us and more priests
Fr. Mengarini, pray for us and more priests
And all such men that gave to us
Our Faith, pray for us and for more priests.

May God and
The Virgin Mary
Provide the Church
Of the holy prairie
With Priests for the Potawatomi.

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