Benedictine Beginning: 1875-1891

Although Catholics had been here and there in what is now Oklahoma for some 300 years, it was not until the French Benedictine monks of the monastery of Pierre-qui-Vire entered Indian Territory in 1875, that there was an official, permanent Roman Catholic Church presence.

The Benedictines came to Indian Territory out of sheer zeal. The area was considered inhospitable and unfertile ground for the Catholic Church. Apparently there was no great effort on the part of American bishops to have responsibility for this wild, frontier land. In these beginning years, when a Roman Catholic voice spoke publicly, or correspondence was written in the name of the Church, or a community of Catholics called together to form a church, it was almost always done by a Benedictine monk.

Isidore Robot: The Founder

About a month after six convicted murderers from Indian Territory had their necks snapped simultaneously on the Ft. Smith gallows, Father Isidore Robot and Brother Dominic Lambert rode from that forlorn Arkansas town toward the tiny settlement of Atoka, Indian Territory. It was October, 1875.

Isidore Robot, the man who was the founder of the Catholic Church in what is now Oklahoma, was a 38-year old Benedictine monk when he entered the Indian Territory. He was an intense, energetc priest dedicated to near contradictory ideals of austere monasticism and the missionary apostolate. Above all he was a man of formidable faith.

During his 11-year tenure in Indian Territory, Isidore Robot founded Sacred Heart Abbey (including mission church and school) in Potawatomi Indian country; formed churches among the coalminers at Krebs, Lehigh and McAlester, and completed the railroad line church at Atoka begun by Arkansas missionaries; and served as Prefect Apostolic (the chief officer of a missionary area) of Indian Territory for a decade.

The bare recital of facts does not give justice to the memory of Isidore Robot. Sleeping in tents or in packing boxes during extremely cold weather; spending many weary days on horseback; suffering repeated misunderstndings and rebuffs; constantly lacking money for important projects; writing long letters to beg funds or explain his positions; rising at 3 a.m. in the frontier darkness to begin prayers; working through painful conflicts within his own small community of monks - these were the day-by-day lot of Isidore Robot.

Under the stress of the monastery-missionary life Isidore Robot's health failed. His life a mixed pattern of visible successes and failures, Father Isidore died on February 15, 1887 in Dallas, Texas. He was 49 years old.

First Places: Atoka and Sacred Heart

Atoka

The priest-brothers, Fathers Michael and Lawrence Smyth, Catholic pastors at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, roved in a wide swath of Indian Territory in missionary efforts. They are known to have offered Mass at the ranch home of Frank Murray in Erin Springs, and to have traveled as far west as Ft. Sill.

The first Catholic church in Indian Territory was begun by Father Michael Smyth in 1872. The Church, named St. Patrick's, served as a place of worship for workers of the MKT railroad. Also in the small congregation were two storekeepers, J.A. Dillion and a Mr. Hardin, as well as a sprinkling of Choctaw Indians including Benjamin Smallwood who later became a chief in the Choctaw Nation.

Father Isidore Robot made Atoka his headquarters for two years, 1875-1877. During that time the church was completed. Atoka was also the site of the first Catholic School in Indian Territory. Under Father Isidore's sponsorship the school began in January, 1876, with a Miss Atchisson as teacher. The school closed in June of the same year.

Sacred Heart

Isidore Robot came to Indian Territory with a twofold intention - to found a Benedictine monastery and to do missionary work among the Indians. In October, 1876, after a year of investigative travel over a large part of the Territory, Father Robot concluded an agreement with the Potawatoki Indians whereby a square mile of land might be selected for the purpose of a mission and a school for the Potawatomi.

The spot chosen by father Isidore was approximately four miles north of Young's Crossing on the Southern Canadian River. Eventually the abbey and school complex of buildings were constructed at the western edge of Bald Hill in a meadow with creeks on either side of it.

Sacred Heart Mission was truly the first center of Catholicism in Indian Territory. From it went forth missionary monks who founded some 40 parishes and missions. From 1881 to 1946 one or more schools operated at Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart, surrounded by cultivated fields, vineyards, and orchards became a well-known haven of hospitality for people in Indian Territory. Ordinary travelers and military men, fugitives from justice and the U.S. marshals pursuing them - all were welcomed without questions being asked.

In its heyday Sacred Heart Mission was home to 30 some monks, had schools for boys and girls and a convent. A fire in January, 1901, almost completely destroyed all the buildings at the mission.

Restoration was swift. By the school year of 1901-02 a new monastery and school building were constructed. Sacred Heart continued to function as an abbey until 1929 when it was transferred to St. Gregory's at Shawnee.

The Benedictine Community

It would be difficult to imagine a strict monastic religious community founded under more difficult circumstances in the 19th century. From the beginning in 1877 the monks at Sacred Heart attempted simultaneously to be frontier builders, missionaries, and austere observers of the rule of St. Benedict.

The monks scrambled out of whatever served for beds to start prayers at 3 a.m. The menu for the first entire year was unyieldingly the same each day: breakfast - bread and coffee; dinner - soup and vegetables; supper - rice and prunes.

Many men, attracted by religious ideals, came; but when confronted with the realities of life at Sacred Heart, many also left. Brother John Laracy, who arrived on January 1, 1880, and remained until his death in 1940, recalled those early days: "I found the life very severe, and I called to mind what the storekeeper at Atoka told me, that I would never stay there, as the life was too hard, and I found it about as he said."

The original community at Sacred Heart consisted of nine: Fathers Isidore Robot, Felix De Grasse, and Romuald Pouget; clerics (students for the priesthood) Bernard Murphy, Benedict Shea, Adalbert Haffner, and Columbus O'Loane; and brothers Dominic Julius Lambert and Paul Baudoin. Ten years later Isidore Robot was dead; Romuald Pouget had returned to France; and Shea, Baudoin, and O'Loane had departed.

Of those that remained, Father Felix became abbot of the community (1898-1905) and "the greatest and most effective of the Oklahoman Benedictine Indian missionaries" according to historian Father Joseph Murphy. Bernard Murphy was ordained a priest in 1883, was a successful missionary but sadly inept as abbot (1905-1909). Brother Dominic lived quietly at Sacred Heart, serving as community winemaker, until he returned to a Belgian monastery in 1912.

The spirit of daring and hardiness of the Sacred Heart Benedictines is illustrated by Father Suitbert Breiken who arrived alone in Indian Territory at Atoka in March, 1883. Realizing that no one had come to meet him, Father Suitbert, then 63 years old, walked the 70 miles from Atoka to Sacred Heart - carrying his suitcase and crossing Muddy Boggy Creek and the South Canadian River along the way.

The Benedictine community was composed of heterogeneous elements from the early years onward - Frenchmen, Basques, Irish and Americans. It had a difficult struggle to survive but live it did as evidenced today by the healthy Benedictine Abbey of St. Gregory's at Shawnee. Every Catholic in Oklahoma is completely indebted to the monks of Sacred Heart.

(Taken from One Family: One Century)