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St. Paul's historic cathedral on the prairie

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MARTY, S.D. - Amidst the lone grove of trees that's otherwise surrounded by a vast area of flat pastureland, a gray apex appears to touch the sky on a low horizon.

Standing out, the steeple on St. Paul's Church easily dwarfs everything around it for miles. At 167 feet to the tip of the cross, the church's appearance is appreciated when measured against the nearby water tower but with its sickly green paint job, there is no other comparison except height.

For more than six decades the cathedral has served the Catholic parishioners of the Yankton Sioux and is a strong reminder of the Church's presence in southeast South Dakota. Now this magnificent tribute to architecture and art serves as a pilgrimage site for Christian worshippers and a place worth a stop for travelers along the state's back roads.

As impressive as the limestone exterior is, which includes an intricate sculpture of St. Paul over the doorway, like other churches it's the interior that catches a visitor's breath. Behind the altar, a large mural shows religious leaders with common folk and Natives with non-Natives portrayed on a painting that's embedded with a crucifix in the middle of a 50-foot wall. Within the expansive nave, sandstone columns flow to the ceiling that with their marble patterns almost looks artificial when, until touched, their gritty texture proves how decorative these rocks are.

Most eye-catching of all are the stained glass windows. Illuminated from the south by a late-morning sun during a glorious autumn day, 18 scenes are shown including the seven sacraments, usually with Indians accepting Christ from a white member of the clergy. As St. Paul Church was consecrated in 1942, it was an enlightened attitude by religious leaders of the day to include an Aboriginal presence, even if the cathedral was on a reservation.

Driving this project was Father Sylvester Eisenman who moved to the Plains in the 1920s from the Benedictine Monks in St. Meinrad, Ind. Originally moving west to cure his tuberculosis; Eisenman eventually stayed finding his cause among "his Indians."

One of the nuns serving the church today is Sister Anthony who is a member of the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She said it was Eisenman who wanted Native Americans incorporated into St. Paul's design.

"Father Sylvester wanted Indians depicted in the windows and the mural behind the altar," the sister said. "He visited a lot of people (for their opinion)."

Sister Anthony, now 88, remembers the former padre well because it was he who suggested she move to the Yankton Reservation from her previous home of the Turtle Mountain Band in Belcourt, N.D. That was in 1932 when she was 17.

"He said come to Marty, it was the best place on earth," she said laughing. "It must be. I was so lonesome in the first week I thought I'd go back, but I'm still here."

Anthony noted that Father Sylvester worked himself back into health incorporating an exercise regimen of walking and hammering stones every day while breathing in the cleaner Dakota air. What really invigorated the reverend was his desire to create a bigger church to meet the needs of a growing community, which had outgrown the approximate 600 square foot wooden one-room building. Though it was Sylvester and his brother Leonard who had the honor of raising the cross on the steeple, the construction of St. Paul's Church was a community affair.

A teenager in 1941 when the foundation was being laid, Stephen Cournoyer Sr. clearly recalls how even the town's kids were involved building the

new church.

"We would go to school for half a day and then work the other half, bringing the stone masons what they wanted," said Cournoyer, 76, who's a lifelong resident of Marty and draws his roots back to the M?tis.

That the church was built at all during America's participation during World War II showed the devotion of Sylvester to complete the project. Rural South Dakota also meant the roads were unpaved though that obstacle too was attempted to be rectified by the children.

"The little kids contributed when they would draw a bucket and as the trucks came along they'd pick up the rocks," Cournoyer said. "When I wasn't glowing on any honor roll status, I went out there crushing rocks."

Both Cournoyer and Sister Anthony recall the December day in 1942, the 17th, when the church was dedicated and thousands of people attended including many Catholic dignitaries. If the building is impressive by today's standards, it was even more so back then considering the lack of modern equipment to erect the building in less than two years.

Cournoyer remembers all those years ago how he and his friends were awestruck by the church's magnificence. However such curiosity got the better of these young rascals.

"We sneaked up their one time (the bell tower) and we stayed until we got hungry and cold. Then we got hell and it was quite a punishment that lasted a week," the great-grandfather, who is now deeply religious said with an impish grin.

As inspiring as St. Paul's is, one of the fundamental principles of its existence is to bring the American Indian closer to God and the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have affirmed and embraced the Native American culture. In addition to the drawings and tile patterns within the church's design, a traditional drum has always been incorporated into the prayer sessions.

"We came to choir at 7:30 a.m. and after Mass the high school girls came and sang with the Indians in Indian hymns," Sister Anthony said.