Fr. Tom Connolly: "Louise Siuwheem"
From Kateri Tekakwitha to Louise Siuwheem
Fr. Thomas E. Connolly, S.J.
Siuwheem, a granddaughter of the Coeur d'Alene Chief Circling Raven, carried the tradition of his vision of blackrobes and the great prayer in her heart throughout the years of waiting. She was born around 1800 at the village of the head chief at Hayden Lake. She grew up as an outstanding woman of gentleness and good judgement, was married to a brother of the Spokane Chief Polatkin and had raised three grown sons.
When word of Fr. DeSmet's long-awalted arrival among the Flatheads reached the Coeur d'Alenes, they sent three young men to the Bitterroot where they learned the prayers and basic teachings of the new faith. When they returned to teach others what they had learned, Siuwheem was their most enthusiastic student.
When Fr. DeSmet returned from St. Louis with new missionary recruits the following year, 1842, he came to the Coeur d'Alenes and found a great gathering waiting for him on the shores of their lake. DeSmet was so impressed by their eagerness and their preparation that he baptized all the children and some of the adults who seemed to be best prepared. Among the first of those baptized was Siuwheem, who had used all her influence to gather her people for the great meeting with DeSmet. She outshone all the others in her eagerness for prayer and instruction and the sacraments. DeSmet later described her as "a predestined soul, filled with extraordinary gifts from heaven." He baptized her under the name of Louise.
DeSmet left the Coeur d'Alenes after a short time, but in the late fall of that year he sent Fr. Point to begin a permanent mission among the bands of the Coeur d'Alenes. After wintering in the lands of the head chief at the outlet of the Spokane River, Fr. Point chose a site for the permanent mission south of the lake near St. Maries. This had created some competition among the chiefs and created resentment in the head chief, Stellam, that the mission would not be in his territory.
But Louise and her husband, Adolph Polotkin, left her family home and enthusiastically moved south to be by the new mission. After three years, a new site was chosen for the mission, east of the lake on the Coeur d'Alene River--the home of a different band. Louise moved again, eager to live by the church. At each site Louise and her husband put up their tulee lodge next to the church, and from there she served as the principal catechist of the tribe.
Louise Siuwheem cared for the sick, instructed the children, taught prayers and hymns and attended mass and devotions in the church each day. Louise and Adolph lived simply and gave away most of what they had to the sick and the elderly. She devoted her entire life in sharing the Catholic faith with the different bands of the Coeur d'Alenes. She traveled many miles from village to village to ensure that the new teachings were being followed.
Louise defended her new faith with the medicine men and many times invited them to accept the powers of Jesus Christ in the prayers and sacraments of the Church. She offered many prayers and endured long fasts to help her in this struggle to replace the powers of animal spirits with the powers of Jesus. Through the influence of her family and the example of her holy life, she gradually won over all the leading medicine men of the tribe to Christian teaching. She could point to the many marvels of grace that God performed in restoring people to life and health through the power of baptism and the blessing of the sick.
Louise went to the mission several times a day to ask questions and clarify her understanding of the teachings of Jesus. Then she trained other catechists to teach the children, and she often prepared the adults for the sacraments herself. The evening before feast days she led hymn singing in the various lodges around the mission. When there were sick or dying, Louise was always there praying and urging them to accept their sufferings with patience as an offering to God. She served as a nurse with Fr. Gazzoli to bring medicines or to help him lance and cleanse the wounds and infections of the sick.
Once when no one wanted a very troublesome young orphan boy who was blind and crippled, Louise took him into her own lodge. Though she often found him impossible to control, she cared for him with love and patience until he died at the age of 16. When her husband became crippled, she did the planting of their field at the mission. She always had her seed blessed and then planted her grain field in the shape of a cross. Everyone noted that she always had a good crop, even when others lost theirs.
Louise also had a great devotion to prayers for the souls in purgatory. Every day of the year she would spend some time in the mission cemetery praying for those buried there. Sometimes it would be dark before she had time to get to the cemetery, and a number of times she had terrible visions of devils and evil spirits who tried to drive her away. But Louise finally overcame these with prayer and the advice of Fr. Gazzoli, so that they eventually bothered her no more and she could carry on her prayers in peace.
In 1853 Louise became very ill herself, and she took totally to prayer and preparation for her own death. Fr. Gazzoli, who had served as her spiritual director, was with her each day now--marvelling at her virtue and holiness. On her last day she was surrounded by her husband, her sons, Fr. Gazzoli and many others from the mission village. She encouraged them and consoled them in their sorrow, that trusting in God's love they would all one day be reunited again. She asked them to sing the hymn "selaght" for the poor souls in purgatory. She started to sing with them, and then slowly slipped away to God during the singing.
The word was spread immediately by criers throughout the different villages, and there was universal mourning for the one the whole tribe had learned to call the "good grandmother." The people put up a vast lodge, wrapped her in the finest skins and furs. They stayed with her throughout the night mourning with prayers and hymns and speeches about her life by the main chiefs of the tribe. In the morning they carried her to the great mission church for a solemn requiem mass and then continued mourning throughout the day. At nightfall, they carried her by torchlight to the cemetery and lowered her into a simple coffin made by her youngest son in a moving ceremony of hymns and wails and torchlight in the dark. Finally each filed by and placed a shovel of dirt upon her grave.
After the discovery or gold in nearby mountains, the tribe lost these northern lands and the mission moved again in 1877 south to a new site named after DeSmet. The tribe lost the use of its grand mission church to the new communities that sprang up in the mining areas. With the changes of time, Louise's grave site has been lost. But the memory of this saintly woman--the good grandmother who converted her tribe to Christianity--is still carried in the hearts of her people.
Louise Siuwheem was the main force in the total conversion of the Coeur d'Alenes to Christianity in the early years before the missionaries became fluent in the language of the people. Fr. Gazzoli called her the "guardian angel of the Coeur d'Alenes," and he gave such glowing stories of her sanctity and her apostolic work for her people to Fr. DeSmet that he later wrote a long story of Louise's life. Hers was the only biographical sketch that Fr. DeSmet published among his many writings.
From Kateri Tekakwitha, through Mohawk Iroquois canoemen, to the Flatheads, to Louise Siuwheem of the Coeur d'Alenes the message came across the mountains. Today in 1982 the Catholic Mohawks come again, 165 years later, to the Tekakwitha Conference in Spokane to share their faith with the tribes of the Rocky Mountain Missions and to recall the memory of those valiant women Tekakwitha and Siuwheem.
Oregon-Province Jesuit Tom Connolly, S.J. is Pastor at Sacred Heart Mission, DeSmet, ID
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