PLUMMER, Idaho – “It’s been a great privilege to work with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for 33 years, especially with the old timers who were here when I first came,” Father Tom Connolly said. The Feast of the Assumption is held annually in early August at the Cataldo Mission and this year it also served as a formal goodbye to the Catholic priest so well-known throughout Indian country in this inland northwest region.
Father Connolly has been a fixture in the region for many years and is often seen dancing at a powwow on a Saturday night and then conducting Mass the following morning, sometimes in the same location as the dance. In earlier years he would take his own painted teepee to the powwows, but more recently has chosen the ease and comfort of his van.
“I’ve tried to find and emphasize integration between the older Indian spiritual ways and the more modern Catholic ways they have taken and show that these two worlds fit together in a comfortable way,” he said. “Much of my life has been trying to explore relationships between two different worldviews and how they can integrate and how both people can enjoy or expand themselves and find fulfillment in something of the views of other people.”
He attended his first Indian funeral on the Kalispell Reservation in 1955 and it was there he met Mitch Michael, a noted Indian leader at the time who led prayers at the funeral. That led to a lifelong friendship and also to collaborating on reprinting an old Indian hymnal.
Michael was also the grandfather of Jeanie Louie who now serves on the Coeur d’Alene tribal council and she remembers those early days. “When he first came over to go into the priesthood he stayed with my grandmother and grandfather and all of us at the big house up on the hill here in Worley. My grandfather was Mitch Michael and my grandmother was Mary Michael. We got to know him from then and he learned the Coeur d’Alene language from my grandparents and other elders in this area and also the Flathead area in Montana.”
“They put together a Salish/Kootenai Catholic hymn book that has the songs in Indian they sang back then and we still sing today. Since he was kind of raised with my grandfolks, he was like a brother to my mother and her sisters and brothers. That’s how we always looked upon him.”
The project of redoing the hymnal led him through various reservations, interviewing the elders and slowly learning some of the language. The local tribes, Kalispell, Coeur d’Alene, and Spokane, were not producing a tribal newspaper at the time so he started an inter-tribal newspaper called the Northwest Indian Times. Because of it, he flew to Indian conferences around the country and was given the name, Ch-tuht-asket, “One Who Flies in the Sky.”
He laughs when he talks of united Indian and Catholic ceremonies and says, “I’m pretty open to doing things and probably pretty loose and too easy going. We would often use smudging as a symbol of prayer rising as the smoke goes up, using an eagle feather. We grind up sweet grass from the prairies to the east, sage from the deserts of the south, cedar from the forests of the northwest, and a healing root, to make our own incense. This was probably the first time smudging in this way was used in Catholic ceremonies.
“Culturation is a two way street in the sense that I have received every bit as much from the people as I have been able to give and serve.”
Asked of plans for the future, he had this to say. “I’ve been told to retire at Gonzaga University and the original thinking is that I would be available to work on different reservations when some of our men on those reservations need a break or get two or three funerals in a row and get kind of overwhelmed. I could be the extra man to help out.” So, at 81, it may not be total retirement.
“His longevity, fortitude and sense of humor, all of that is like an icon for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and other Salish speaking tribes in our area,” Louie said. “He’s been someone who was here for everyone and everyone relied upon him for spiritual guidance. He’s going to be sorely missed by everyone.”