CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
“This ministry opens up the Gospel for me,” Sr. Margaret Troy said of working with the Native American community in Milwaukee.
Sr. Troy started ministry work with the Native American community in 1979.
Ten years later, the first urban-located parish dedicated to serving the Native American population in the United States was established, succeeding the Siggenauk Center.
On Sunday, Dec. 22, the Congregation of the Great Spirit in Milwaukee will celebrate its 30th anniversary as a parish. “The fact that the parish made it to 30 years is extraordinary, involving the Native American people in the life of the Church,” said Sr. Troy.
Originally located inside the United Indian Center on Mitchell Street, the parish moved to the site of the previous St. Gabriel Church in 1997, where it remains today.
The parish of the Congregation of the Great Spirit was born Dec. 21, 1989, the Winter Solstice, a significant date in Native American culture.
Over the three decades of its existence, the Congregation has endured budget cuts and survived a building fire. In 2008, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story about the Congregation titled “Closing Possible Next Year;” the Catholic Herald headline read, “Congregation of the Great Spirit must raise funds to survive.”
The Congregation belongs to the National Tekakwitha Conference and hosted the convention in the 1990s. “Having 1,000 Native Americans join us and pray here was a wonderful experience,” Pastor Fr. Ed Cook said.
Unlike other parishes that are defined by geography, “the thing that makes us unique is we have a strong Native American urban ministry.”
As a multi-tribal region, the liturgy at the Congregation of the Great Spirit honors all of the represented Native American traditions and the corresponding languages.
The two cultures surrounding the Congregation are completely different, Fr. Cook explained: big American culture focuses on the individual while Native American culture focuses on the community.
“We run our parish by Native American values, which are very tribal. We are very hospitable and welcoming. Our group is community oriented and work extensively in social justice,” Fr. Cook said.
Additionally, certain tactile elements and rituals are integrated into the liturgy, such as the use of tobacco, one of the medicines in Native American culture. Tobacco, Fr. Cook described, in Native American culture is a gift from the Great Spirit, “given as a way of communicating with God. It is used as an offering or a promise.”
If a couple wants to baptize their baby, they offer Fr. Cook tobacco as a way to ask and provide an offering, he said. “My acceptance of the gift, of the tobacco, is my agreement to baptize the child.”
The involvement of earthen elements and physical offerings like tobacco infusing prayer “makes you pay attention. It makes you stop and think what you are doing,” Fr. Cook said.
Integrating other rituals like smudging, which is the burning of sage or sweet grass, cedar and tobacco — “It’s not something I do, it’s something I try to enable the people to do: learn the customs and practice those customs,” said Fr. Cook.
Within the liturgy, worship songs are in Native American languages and “we center our worship around the drum as well as around the altar,” Fr. Cook said. The drum “is very sacred to the Native American people.”
Working on social justice fronts is a “huge thrust in our parish.” The Congregation operates a food pantry that is open from 1-3 p.m. on Thursdays and 10 a.m. to noon on Fridays, serving the 53204 zip code and the Native American community.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary, the Congregation of the Great Spirit hosted educational events and enrichment programs throughout this year, designed to share the story of the Native American people and educate others about the customs and traditions that compose the culture.
For former educator Sr. Troy, this has been a “thrilling experience — for the Natives to tell the story of their tribes and for others to learn has been just wonderful.”
The parish will host an upcoming Water Walk, which all are “welcome — anyone who wants to give thanks to God for this great gift: come and celebrate,” Sr. Troy said.
Working with the Native American community and learning the cultural significance of integrated traditions, the culture has “become part of myself. Anything you do for a long time becomes a part of you,” Sr. Margaret Troy said.