An Indian in Subotica

Catechist John Grey Bull (Crow) playing organ by Aloysius Vrebosch, St. Anthony’s Mission, Crow Indian Reservation, Wyola, Montana, 1925. Marquette University Archives

By leafing through the hundred year old editions of the daily Bácsmegyei Napló, we have already seen how many exotic visitors came to Szabadka/Subotica just in 1912, the glorious year of the local Art Nouveau, from the Chinese “idol god sellers” through the German students coming to work here as cowboys and the mysterious Turkish globetrotters to the Bulgarian and Serbian rulers who gave each other rendezvous at the railway station of Subotica only to point it out again and again how ugly it is. But perhaps the strangest one was that “red-skinned” Indian seminarist who dived into the city during his theological studies in Europe, and who was immediately noticed by the vigilant reporter of Bácsmegyei Napló.

Choctaw altar boys, Holy Rosary Mission, Tucker, Mississippi, ca. 1900–1915. Marquette University Archives

Bácsmegyei Napló, 4 January 1912

A Native American seminarist in Szabadka
From our correspondent. Szabadka, 3 January

Yesterday afternoon an interesting young man walked about the streets of Szabadka. His clothing was the blue cassock of the Catholic seminarists, so he was not conspicuous for anybody.

This seminarist is a red-skinned Native Indian from America.

He is called Philip Gordon, and came from the state of Minnesota in Northern America. His grandfather may have hunted for scalps, his father was perhaps still a nomad roaming the endless American plains, and the son will probably become a bishop.

Philip Gordon was baptized, and took a liking to the priestly career. Now he sailed across the ocean to the Old World, and will go to Innsbruck to learn theology.

He got to Szabadka by having got acquainted with a seminarist from the village of Bajmok, Ernő Rickert, and he invited him now to us.

The Native American speaks in English, French and some German as well.

Whatever he has hitherto seen from Hungary was very pleasant to him, and he feels quite well here.

Philip Gordon remains in Bajmok only a few days, and then he goes to Innsbruck. And a few years later he will spread Christianity among his red-skinned siblings.

One hundred years later our American reader ribizlifőzelék was just as vigilant as the reporter of Bácsmegyei Napló, and noticing this article, he recalled having seen the grave of an Indian priest of the same name in Wisconsin, where it is held in high regard. In the wake of his guidance we have established that Philip B. Gordon indeed existed. What’s more, he was the first Native American Catholic Priest in the USA. He indeed came to Hungary. And even if he did not become a bishop, he indeed spread Christianity until his death among his “red-skinned siblings”.

Rev. Philip B. Gordon (Ojibwa) and Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai), Lac Courte Oreille Indian Reservation, Reserve, Wisconsin, 1919, on a speaking tour as officers of the Society of American Indians. Marquette University Archives

“The aging Indian priest sat, as his ancestors had, beside the war drum. A stiff breeze whistled through the tops of the tall pines, but beneath their sheltering branches, the eagle feathers in his war bonnet were barely ruffled. Although the priest was a Chippewa, the headdress he often wore was Sioux; he received it while he was doing mission work in the western states.

Along the sandy river bank a campfire, adding its glow and warmth to the cool June evening in the north woods, accentuated the priest’s Indian features and his ample figure. Around him sat twenty St. Paul, Minnesota, Boy Scouts, eagerly waiting for the proceedings to begin.

Friends of the scouts and the priest had gathered at the camp the scouts called Neibel to witness the presentation of the Chippewa war drum and peace pipe to the troop by Reverend Philip Gordon (Ti-bish-ko-gi-jik). The Calumet or peace pipe had always been sacred to the Indians, and like the drum, its presentation was attended by strict ceremony.

Among the spectators was Luther Youngdahl, Minnesota’s governor and a friend of Father Gordon. He had invited the priest to drum out a song.

For forty years the drum had been used for tribal ceremonies and it was said that on a calm night it could be heard for ten miles. But now the sound reverberated through the dense woods, one of the few stands of virgin timber remaining in the once heavily forested area.”

Thus begins the biography written by Paula Delfeld in 1977 about Philip B. Gordon, the first Native American Catholic priest.

John Frog (Ojibwa) by Philip B. Gordon, Lac Courte Oreille Indian Reservation, Reserve, Wisconsin, 1922. Marquette University Archives

Philip B. Gordon was born on March 31, 1885 as one of fourteen siblings in Wisconsin, the Great Lakes region, in a commercial station called Gordon, which was founded and named after their family by his uncle. Both of his parents belonged to the Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribe, but in both lineages there was also a French ancestor. Hence they inherited the name Gaudin, which was englicized for Gordon by his uncle. Philip, who at birth received the name Ti-bish-ko-gi-jik, “Heaven Viewer”, still grew up in the traditional Native American culture, but he also fluently spoke in French and English.

The railway arrived to the Great Lakes region in Philip’s childhood, and Philip witnessed the radical changes it had brought: the clearance of the forests and the destruction of the traditional Indian way of life. Depression, alcoholism and suicide rapidly spread among the Indians deprived of their living space and livelihood. Philip, who first went to a military college, felt obliged to devote his life to his Native American brothers, thus after two years he went over to the seminary of the local Franciscan mission. There he excelled with his intelligence, physical and rhetorical skills, and so after the first year he was sent to the American College in Rome. From there he went to the theology of Innsbruck, where he remained for two years, until finishing his studies. This is the period when he also came to Szabadka.

“Philip enjoyed traveling and spent two summer vacation periods in France, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and made one trip to England. Some of these were walking tours. In the land of his French ancestors, he learned to speak the language fluently and spent much of his time in the French department of Loir-et-Cher. Besides English and French, he spoke fluent German, Italian and numerous Indian dialects.”

On December 8, 1913, the feast of the Immaculate Conception he was ordained a priest in Wisconsin. His Czech bishop, Koudelka wanted to send him to an urban parish, but he successfully begged to be left among his Ojibwe brothers. In the coming decades he accomplished a huge organizational work. He built missions, organized the life of the local communities, actively fought for their rights against the authorities and the private companies who wanted to expropriate the lands and forests of the Indians. He became member, and then president of the Society of American Indians which fought for the emancipation and rights of the Native Americans. By denouncing the burning crosses as defamation of religion, he successfully defied the Ku-Klux-Klan; thanks to his perseverance, the sheriffs and other official persons, and even Baptist preachers who were members of the Klan, were dismissed or moved, so that the Klan could neve put root in Wisconsin. He carried out a great missionary work not only among the Ojibwe, but also among their ancient enemies, the Sioux; it was his merit that the two people finally made peace with each other. He was an exceptional organizer, an excellent orator, and, moreover, “a charming personality, highly educated and possessing a natural humor which made his remarks very entertaining as well as interesting and instructive.”

Rev. Philip Gordon addressing Catholic Sioux Congress, 1923. Marquette University Archives

Attendees by tipi at Catholic Sioux Congress, 1923. A bit to the right, behind the two old women stands Rev. Philip Gordon. Marquette University Archives

The local newspapers reported on his activity regularly and with large sympathy.

Philip Gordon preaches in German and English in St. Louis, calling upon the support of the Indian missions. The Guardian, Arkansas, March 11, 1922. The complete edition.

Philip Gordon speaks in the interest of the emancipation of the Indians. The Guardian, Arkansas, February 17, 1923. The complete edition.

Philip Gordon died in 1948, after thirty years of intensive work, and two years of serious illness. With the last of his strength he organized the Odjibwe Inter-Tribal Organization, which claimed hundreds of millions of dollars against the government for the lands taken away from the Indians. He was buried in his native village Gordon. His tomb is still highly respected, and, as the Indian Country News writes, it is an obligatory element of every documentary on the Native Americans of the region. Subotica can be really proud of his former visit.

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