Francis Xavier Pierz
Francis Xavier Pierz (Slovene: Franc Pirc or Franc Pirec; German: Franz Pierz) (November 20, 1785 – January 22, 1880) was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary to the Ottawa and Ojibwe Indians in present-day Michigan, Ontario, and Minnesota. Because he attracted numerous Catholic German Americans to settle in Central Minnesota, he is referred to as the "Father of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud."
Father Pierz was born on November 20, 1785 to a peasant family in Godič, near the Carniolan town of Kamnik in the Austrian Empire (now Slovenia). 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 Fusine in Valromana, he was appointed parish priest of the villages of Peče 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.
In 1835, Pierz departed for the missions of the United States after years of being inspired by the published letters of the Slovenian missionary priest, and future Bishop, Father Frederic Baraga, who worked in present-day Upper Michigan and Wisconsin. Pierz arrived in the Diocese of Detroit on September 16, where he presented 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 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 operating. He also sailed to other missions around the shores of Lake Superior, where he served Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians, who spoke Algonquian languages.
On June 28, 1838, he reached Father Baraga at La Pointe, Wisconsin. After a friendly visit, Baraga persuaded Father Pierz to re-establish the mission at Grand Portage, Minnesota. The formerly great trading post had declined with the drop in the fur trade since 1830. The Ojibwa Indians living there had turned to harvesting the fish of Lake Superior and selling their catches to the American Fur Company. Pierre Picotte, a Métis who worked as an agent for the company, had been instructing the Ottawa in the Catechism and preparing them to join the Catholic Church. Father Pierz's letters describe being impressed by the Ojibwa embrace of Catholicism.
At Grand Portage, Pierz arranged for the clearing of a plot of farmland which, in keeping with Indian ways, was owned and worked in common. He arranged the sale of their surplus produce to nearby European-American miners. He founded a school 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. In October 1839, the bishop ordered Pierz to move to take over the missions at Harbor Springs, Michigan. He remained there for 12 years.
In Spring 1852, after a series of disputes with his bishop, Pierz secured a release from the Diocese of Detroit. He was recruited for the newly organized Minnesota Territory, where Bishop Joseph Crétin urgently needed priests to serve his vast diocese.
Father Pierz was assigned a mission field, comprising the whole of Minnesota north of the Twin Cities. He established his headquarters at the boomtown of Old Crow Wing, filled with saloons and honky tonks. It is now the site of Crow Wing State Park. Traveling on foot between his missions, Pierz carried on his back all that was necessary for saying Mass. The Ojibwa dubbed him, "Old Man, Black Gown." Viewing him as a man of great spiritual power, they occasionally stole his socks to use as a folk remedy against rheumatism.
After the United States signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Lakota in 1851, it declared much of southern and central Minnesota open to settlement by European Americans. Noticing many Protestant Yankee settlers from the Northern Tier, Father Pierz began to promote the territory 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 for homesteaders.
In May 1855, the first wave of German, Luxembourger, and Slovene settlers began to arrive in large numbers, staking out claims throughout what are today Morrison, Benton, and Stearns counties. 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 European organizations had been formed to support Catholic missionaries abroad and were mainly funded by the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach and the Austro-Hungarian House of Habsburg.
Unable to care for both the settlers and the Ojibwa, Father Pierz pleaded with Bishop Crétin to send more priests to assist him. The Bishop wrote to Abbot Boniface Wimmer of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. On May 21, 1856 a party of five Benedictine priests from Pennsylvania arrived on a steamboat at Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. They founded Saint John's Abbey. Unable to be there to greet them, Father Pierz had left a letter for the party's leader, Father Demetrius de Marogna, by which he 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 Fathers Joseph Buh, Ignaz Tomazin, and James Trobec (later Bishop).
Last years and death
In 1871, Father Pierz reluctantly accepted the limitations of age and retired to the predominantly German parish of Rich Prairie, Morrison County. It was renamed Pierz in his honor. His health, however, continued to decline.
In a letter written on January 20, 1872, Father Pierz declared, "During the past year, my eyesight has failed me so that I am unable to read newspapers anymore. In the eighty-seventh year of my life my health is perceptively declining. Two years ago, I was still able to take care of twelve missions, Indian, German, English-speaking. This year my Right Rev. Bishop urged me to retire and live with him or at least take charge of some small German mission. Two attacks of apoplexy endangered my life; but my homeopathic medicines soon restored my health. At the present I hear a continued buzzing sound in my ears, reminding me strongly that the time has come to preparw for my last mission journey."
On September 6, 1873, Father Pierz sailed for Slovenia to live out his last years. After spending the winter at the Franciscan monastery in his native Kamnik, he moved to Ljubljana, where he lived for several years as a permanent guest in the Archdiocesan Chancery. The Austro-Hungarian Crown awarded him a full pension.
According to Fr. John Seliskar, who knew Fr. Pierz in his last years, "The past for him was a blank; he had no realization of his surroundings. He would frequently hail a cab and request the driver to take him to Wabasha, or some Indian mission he attended in America. A few minutes' drive would satisfy him, for he no longer remembered the order he had given the coachman. He left his memory and his mind among the red men. The writer of these lines remembers the aged missionary, bowed down with the weight of years, with a faraway look in his eyes, walking the streets of Laibach, but his spirit apparently wandering in the American forests."
Father Pierz died of on January 22, 1880. After a traditional Requiem Mass offered by the Bishop of Ljubljana, he was interred in Saint Christopher's Cemetery, Ljubljana. This cemetery was razed after World War II and Father Pierz's remains now rest in an unmarked grave.
Father Pierz continues to be fondly remembered in both his native land and in central Minnesota. He remains a popular figure in Minnesota folklore, with stories about him passed down among both the Ojibwa and European-American Catholics of the area.
- The city of Pierz, Minnesota is named in his honor.
- A statue of him was dedicated in front of St. Cloud Hospital in 1952.
- In Slovenia, a bronze monument to him was erected in Podbrezje, his last parish assignment before going to the US.
- A large collection of his letters and poetry are preserved in the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia in Ljubljana.
- The Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana holds numerous rare American Indian artifacts collected and donated by Father Pierz.
- The elementary school St. Francis Xavier School was named in his honor in Sartell, MN.
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."
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!'
- Grace McDonald, "Father Francis Pierz Missionary," Minnesota History, vol. 10, 107-125.
- Drnovšek, Marjan. 1998. Usodna privlačnost Amerike: pričevanja izseljencev o prvih stikih z novim svetom. Ljubljana: Nova revija, p. 54.
- Furlan (1952), page 239.
- Voigt (1989), page 24.
- Furlan (1952), pages 239-240.
- Rev. John Seliskar, "The Reverend Francis Pirec, Indian Missionary," Acta et Dicta, II (July, 1911), p. 87.
- Furlan (1952), pages 240-243.
- Voigt (1989), page 24.
- 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.
- 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.
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- Drnovšek, Marjan. Franc Pirc (1785-1880): Sadjar na Kranjskem in misijonar v Ameriki. Naklo, 2003.
- 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.