Fr. Rod Ermatinger with some Sisters of Charity on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. (Submitted photo)
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Helena, Montana, is approximately 1,400 miles away from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but there is a strong connection.
That bond was strengthened this year when Archbishop Jerome Listecki chose the Blackfeet as the recipients of his Lenten almsgiving project, in an appeal to readers of his weekly Love One Another email.
Archbishop Listecki explained Pope Francis has asked each diocese to recapture the missionary spirit by carrying the message of the love of Jesus to our brothers and sisters. This year’s Lenten almsgiving gives local Catholics the ability to be missionaries right here in our backyard.
“I call upon your generosity to respond to the needs of our Catholic brothers and sisters, who are economically challenged, and experiencing a high incidence of alcohol and drug additions,” Archbishop Listecki said. “The needs of our Native American brothers and sisters are often forgotten by members of our society. As Catholics, we respond to the call to serve in the name of Jesus, who said, ‘Whatever you did for one of least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.’”
Fr. Rod Ermatinger (whose brother is Fr. Cliff Ermatinger of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee) has served the Blackfeet Reservation since July 2021. He pastors two parishes and four mission churches.
These parishes are comprised of more than 12,000 Native Americans, many of whom are baptized Catholics, throughout a 3,000-square-mile radius.
A permanent deacon and religious brother assist Fr. Ermatinger with his myriad duties. Last year, he officiated at more than 130 funerals and more than 200 baptisms. Due to extensive poverty and addiction issues, the parishes in the reservation depend almost exclusively on outside donations.
A graduate of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Sheboygan, Regina Bettag is serving as the science teacher at De La Salle Blackfeet School, a Christian Brothers school serving grades four to eight. She began volunteering with the school in 2018 with the LaSallian volunteers and transitioned to a full-time staff member.
“There is something incredibly striking about the reservation. There is a certain rugged beauty to it. This can be found in the natural landscape as the large powerful Rocky Mountains meet the lavender and rosy hues of the soft pastel sky, (and) in the people as well,” Bettag said. “Life out here is certainly not easy: the winds are harsh, the winters are long, and poverty and addiction have a strong grip on this community that is isolated two hours from the nearest midsize town with a Target or Walmart.”
According to Fr. Ermatinger, the challenge of serving as the only priest on the reservation is great, but more difficult is his inability to be more present to the people in Heart Butte and the surrounding area.
“Recently, in a three-week span, two boys, 15 and 18 years old, committed suicide, and a 20-year-old died from liver failure due to abuse of alcohol,” Fr. Ermatinger said. “I am now working on a plan to be there hopefully once a month from Saturday morning through Sunday. Br. Dale Mooney, a De La Salle brother, does a Communion service on Sundays. Dcn. John Gobert does Communion services … generally in the summers.”
In addition to serving as the sole priest, Fr. Ermatinger also has a limited staff of two bookkeepers, three custodians and one receptionist. The wind and weather are often damaging to the facilities, and he said it can be challenging to get repairs done promptly.
“I oversee various matters that could be handled by lay people, paid or volunteers. We do have some volunteers and I am greatly indebted,” Fr. Ermatinger said. “We have lots of snow, so we need to hire people for this if our staff is unable to do it all, which is often the case, and that can be expensive. I also spend lots of time visiting with people who struggle with addiction or who have other difficulties they deal with.”
To help deal with all the difficulties, Fr. Ermatinger said he and many of the Native American Catholics have strong devotions to praying the Rosary, the brown scapular, holy water, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, along with St. Therese the Little Flower, St. Anne and the Holy Family.
While the challenges are many, Bettag credits Fr. Ermatinger for improving the life of this loving community that cares for each other and does what it can despite financial constraints.
“With retreats, weekly adoration and Reconciliation, religious education, RCIA, Bible study, community meals, and too many Baptisms and funerals to count, the Church family is sincerely present for its people. We ask humbly for any help,” Bettag said. “While I do not know the finances of the parish, I know that it is costly to run things here and every bit helps. People work hard to raise money, fundraising months in advance simply to put on a weekend retreat. The help and support from the Lenten campaign will help in so many areas, but beyond affording economic mobility, it shows that our community in isolated northwestern Montana is not alone — we are connected to a Catholic family much larger, one that notices us and shares its love and prayers even from thousands of miles away.”
It’s not too late to help with the Lenten campaign. You can give online here: https://archmil.givingfuel.com/2023-lenten-campaign or mail a check to Archdiocese of Milwaukee, c/o Kim Kasten, P.O. Box 070912, Milwaukee, WI 53207. Make the check out to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and write Lenten Campaign in the memo line.