St. Katharine Drexel is shown at the St. Louis Boarding School for Girls in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in this 1942 photo." data-c-credit="Archdiocese Of Oklahoma City

Catholic leaders exploring history, legacy of Oklahoma Catholic Indian boarding schools

The Oklahoman [Oklahoma City OK]

January 30, 2022

By Carla Hinton

[Photo above: St. Katharine Drexel is shown at the St. Louis Boarding School for Girls in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in this 1942 photo. – Archdiocese Of Oklahoma City]

A Native American woman stood to face a group gathered after Sunday Mass at a small Pottawatomie County Catholic church recently.

How would they feel if they were forbidden to pray the rosary or the Hail Mary, she asked. What if they were prohibited from making the sign of the cross?

Amy Warne, of Oklahoma City, said most Catholics would grieve the loss of these spiritual traditions of Catholicism, much like many Indigenous youths mourned the prohibition of their native religion, language and other customs when they attended boarding schools in Oklahoma between 1880 and 1965.

Warne spoke during a “listening session” at Sacred Heart Church in Konawa conducted by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s American Indian Catholic Outreach.

The sessions are part of the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project launched by the archdiocese and the Diocese of Tulsa in fall 2021. The project focuses on Catholic boarding schools for Native Americans that were operated from 1880 to 1965 in the state.

According to the archdiocese, 11 Catholic boarding schools for Native Americans existed in Oklahoma in that time period. The first one opened in Konawa in 1880 and closed in 1926. The last boarding school, St. Patrick’s in Anadarko, closed in 1965. They were all overseen by various Catholic religious orders.

The project came in the wake of a reckoning that began in Canada after the May 2021 discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. 

Amy Warne poses for a portrait Jan. 13 in Oklahoma City." BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMA
Amy Warne poses for a portrait Jan. 13 in Oklahoma City.” BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMA

“Reflecting on the Canadian experience, we wanted to better understand the history, educational value and experiences of Native students of Oklahoma Catholic boarding schools,” said Michael Scaperlanda, the Oklahoma City archdiocese’s chancellor. 

In the U.S., Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Laguna tribe, has called for a comprehensive review of the federal boarding school legacy.  

Learning from the past

According to a U.S. Department of the Interior list provided by the archdiocese, the 11 Catholic American Indian Boarding Schools in Oklahoma and their specific locations included: St. Patrick’s, Anadarko; St. Agnes, Antlers; St. Agnes Academy, Ardmore; St. Joseph’s Academy, Chickasha; St. John’s, Hominy Creek; Nazareth Institute, Muskogee; St. Louis Boarding School for Girls, Pawhuska; St. Elizabeth’s Boarding School, Purcell; St. Mary’s Mission School, Quapaw; and St. Benedict’s Industrial School for Boys and St. Mary’s Academy, both at Sacred Heart, Konawa. 

“It is important we learn and understand the experiences of American Indian children and their families at Catholic boarding schools in Oklahoma so we can make better and more informed decisions moving forward,” the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Oklahoma City archbishop, said in a statement. “We will continue to build a culture of inclusion, healing and understanding related to Native American Catholics in our state.”

Scaperlanda said through the new Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, Catholic leaders will gather oral histories from former students and their descendants, study documentation on Catholic Indian boarding schools from parishes, religious orders, tribes, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other reputable sources. The information collected through documents and oral histories will be compiled into a report.

Scaperlanda said the Oklahoma Catholic organizations also will work with Marquette University in Milwaukee, which holds the archives for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. He said this work will include collaboration with Marquette professor Bryan Rindfleisch, who specializes in Native American history and studies. Oral histories and research will be coordinated locally by university researchers.

St. Patrick's Catholic Mission and School, established in 1889 in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
St. Patrick’s Catholic Mission and School, established in 1889 in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The chancellor said the project won’t shy away from negative aspects of the boarding schools.

“Whatever, we find, we want to be transparent about,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some good, I’m sure there’s some bad and I’m sure there’s some ugly.”

Ultimately, Scaperlanda said church leaders hope the project will bring about something positive.

“We hope with this, especially with anything that is bad or ugly, we want to engage in the process of reconciliation, of healing, he said. “We’re just excited to be engaged in this process.”

In a statement, the Most Rev. David A. Konderla, bishop of the Tulsa Diocese, shared similar comments.

“It is by understanding the past that we are able to improve and build on good ideas in the present and, where necessary, make amends for failures in the past,” he said.

Conversation about some of the bleak happenings at those boarding schools of yesteryear rose to the surface at the January listening session at Sacred Heart.  

The sessions, which began in October 2021, were envisioned as a time when Native Americans could discuss the boarding schools and their legacy with a Catholic deacon and his wife.

Deacon Roy Callison, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, came up with idea, and he and his wife, Susan, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, have been conducting the sessions through the office of the American Indian Catholic Outreach. In addition to Konawa, sessions have been held in Shawnee, Anadarko, Pawhuska and Fairfax. 

Encouraging cooperation

Coakley, the Oklahoma City archdiocese’s leader and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, joined Bishop James S. Wall, of Gallup, New Mexico, chair of the conference of Catholic bishop’s Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, in sending a letter to bishops throughout the nation, encouraging them to cooperate with the federal government’s probe into the history of federal boarding schools for the Indigenous.

Coakley and Wall asked other bishops to provide records and any information that the federal government requested. The two religious leaders also encouraged bishops to “consider reaching out to tribal leaders, and begin, if you have not already done so, a dialogue about the schools that were historically in your areas.”

Coakley and Wall said some of the federal schools were run with religious groups affiliated with the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations.

They noted that some of the schools were organized by “famous missionaries and saints.”

According to the Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture, the first Catholic educational programs for Native Americans in what is now Oklahoma, were partly funded by Katharine Drexel, a religious sister who came from a wealthy family and used her money to support educational projects.

Scaperlanda said Drexel, who was recognized as a Catholic saint in 2000, was well known for her efforts to educate African Americans and Native Americans.

“However, there are many accounts, publicly reported with evidence, that the experience for many at these schools was very bad if not disastrous,” the two bishops wrote.

In fall 2021, another Oklahoma faith group made a similar observation as it sought to confront the legacy of Native American boarding schools.

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church hosted a prayer vigil at a church near Okemah on Sept. 30, 2021, to honor Native American children who attended boarding schools in Oklahoma. The event was held in conjunction with National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation that is dedicated in Canada to residential school survivors.  

The United Methodist denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries and several other United Methodist entities condemned church sponsorship of U.S. “abusive” Indian boarding schools and called for remembrance of victims and survivors.

The faith group said while authorized and primarily funded by government, some of these schools also were sponsored or operated by religious organizations, including several with Methodist affiliations.

To learn more

Go to to learn more about the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project. To participate in the project or to share an experience from a Catholic Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, email