Father Emmett Hoffmann Leaves His Mark on St. Labre

By Mary Pickett
Billings Gazette
May 21, 2004

Father Emmett Hoffmann, above, gives Shawntay Oldman a tickle before sending her off on the bus after school at the St. Labre Indian School in this 1993 photo. Hoffmann arrived at St. Labre in 1954 expecting to spend a year. Fifty years later, Hoffmann is still a fixture in the community and recognized for his accomplishments in fund-raising, community development and helping change the quality of life on the reservation for many. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff A youngster learns a new trick in the St. Labre cafeteria, which serves meals to hundreds of children a day. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Father Emmett Hoffmann, one of only two white men ever elected to the Northern Cheyenne’s council of 44 chiefs, is honored during a dedication of the new multipurpose building at St. Labre in 1996. At left is Austin Two Moons, grandson of Two Moon, who fought Lt. Col., George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn. Two Moons has since died. Photo courtesy of Emmett Hoffmann In the mid-1960s, Father Emmett Hoffmann took his own 4x5-inch camera around the Northern Cheyenne reservation to document the housing conditions that he found deplorable. While present-day conditions have greatly improved, some Cheyenne still live in sub-standard housing, where winter can be especially brutal. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff The towering tepee church on the St. Labre campus is constructed with 'Montana marble' — earth-toned slabs of rock used throughout the campus to present a native-looking architecture and feel. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Clarence “Bisco” Spotted Wolf, right, visits with Father Emmett Hoffmann in the entryway of the Heritage Living Center, a retirement complex in Ashland — Hoffmann’s latest ambition realized.

When Father Emmett Hoffmann arrived at St. Labre Mission 50 years ago this summer, he found that Northern Cheyenne living on the surrounding reservation had few material possessions.

Yet, in spite of that, they maintained a sense of humor and humanity that Father Emmett still marvels at today.

"When I visited them, you always found them joyful and happy," Hoffmann said recently. "That's something many people with great fortunes don't have."

Hoffmann, who had his heart set on serving at a Capuchin mission in Nicaragua, hadn't wanted to come to Montana in 1954. Once he got to the state, he didn't expect to stay long. His instructions were to spend a year closing the poorly financed St. Labre school, which was started in 1884.

The story of why and how Hoffmann stayed in Montana over the next 50 years is told in a book published last year, "Renegade Priest of the Northern Cheyenne," by Renee Sansom Flood.

A candid account of Hoffmann's half-century in Montana, the book follows Hoffman from his childhood on a Wisconsin dairy farm to his becoming a Capuchin friar to his phenomenal fundraising campaign that expanded St. Labre from a small mission school to a modern facility.

The book also takes an unblinking look at Hoffmann's human side, including his struggle with alcoholism.

"He's not a saint; he's a man," Flood said during an interview. "He's an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary tenacity and faith in God."

His flaws haven't altered how many Cheyenne see him.

Hoffmann has been Rubie Sooktis' family priest for 50 years. Sooktis was an elementary student at St. Labre when Hoffmann arrived.

"He's been very much a part of our lives and supported us" through the illnesses and deaths of both of her parents, she said. "He's a dear friend, a confident and an adviser."

Whatever problems he has had doesn't change the way Sooktis feels about Hoffmann.

"We appreciate him even more because of that honesty," she said. "His accomplishments outweigh his problems."

The Northern Cheyenne would make Hoffmann one of two white men ever to become an honorary chief. They also gave him the name "Soaring Eagle."

Hoffmann, 77, now divides his time between the assisted-living Heritage Center at Ashland and his home in Billings.

One year after he arrived in Montana, Hoffmann became pastor and superintendent of St. Labre. Dismayed by conditions on the reservation, he wrote an appeal letter to Leo Dohn Sr., a wealthy New York businessman who manufactured costume jewelry and plastic religious items.

Dohn was touched by the letter and allowed Hoffmann to use Dohn's mailing list of Catholic clients to solicit contributions.

More appeal letters from Hoffman followed. That started a highly successful direct-mail campaign, which would eventually bring in millions of dollars.

The money came in at such a rate that Hoffmann bought a plane, built a dirt airstrip and became a pilot to take the donations into Miles City bank the fastest way possible. By car, the round trip to Miles City could take all day. The plane also would enable him to fly the sick or injured to medical care.

Although Hoffman usually is seen as the force behind the fund drive, he said he didn't do it alone.

"I can't look at St. Labre without a sense of accomplishment, but I can't take credit for it," he said, adding that those who contributed money and time to the school should also be appreciated.

When Hoffmann first arrived at St. Labre, the mission had a brick building that served as both school and dorm, a tiny Quonset-hut gym, a small church and several other outbuildings.

Sooktis has fond memories of the school in those early days, including wonderful homemade bread and butter, but she also remembers how small the school was. Children, like Sooktis, who boarded at the school ate lunch and dinner in the classroom because there was no dining room.

Students also played outside even on the coldest days because there was no indoor play area.

When Hoffmann began adding modern buildings, he wanted a Native American look to it.

The first architect he consulted drew up a campus of buildings in a Spanish-mission style.

"It looked like a bunch of Taco Bells," Hoffmann said.

Hoffman found another architect who designed buildings that incorporated the beige, rose and gray tones of the surrounding landscape.

Today, the school sprawls across 100 acres of green lawns and mature trees along the Tongue River. A large fountain marks the middle of campus.

About 540 students, preschool- through high-school-aged, attend classes in linking modern buildings. One of the most recent additions is the Father Emmett Soaring Eagle Center with a large gym, auditorium and indoor Olympic-size swimming pool.

A modern church in the shape of a tepee dominates the campus. Canted across one side of the stone building is a large cross, its angle suggesting the cross being carried by Jesus.

St. Labre has a dorm for boarding students and separate group homes for students who are troubled or need closer supervision, said Curtis Yarlott, the school's executive director.

St. Labre also administers two schools on the Crow Reservation: Pretty Eagle School at St. Xavier, with 100 students, preschool through eighth grade; and St. Charles School at Pryor with 83 students, kindergarten through eighth grade.

By the time he retired from St. Labre in 1993, the school had a $50 million endowment and several ongoing scholarships to send St. Labre graduates to college.

To bring jobs to the reservation where unemployment was high, Hoffmann enlisted Dohn's help again. Working with the tribe, Dohn and Hoffmann in the early 1960s built a factory to manufacture plastic items, including Indian dolls sent to donors. They also made address books, wall plaques, novelty items and costume jewelry.

The factory at Ashland, which employed 220 people, and another, a 120-person factory at Lodge Grass, would operate until 1976 when high oil prices pushed up the cost of plastic and higher postage rates made the enterprise unprofitable.

In addition to the expansion of St. Labre, Hoffmann helped Chief Dull Knife College get started and started a local bank, which meant no more flying to Miles City to make deposits.

He and Cheyenne chiefs also would help revive traditional dances and powwows 30 years ago.

Those years at St. Labre weren't without trouble for the hardworking Hoffman.

By the mid-1960s, he was drinking heavily, and his health was not good.

The departure of a close friend, a young female volunteer who worked as Hoffmann's secretary, exacerbated those problems, according to Flood. With people talking about the close friendship, Hoffmann was ordered by his superiors to ask the young woman to leave or he would be transferred.

In Flood's book, Hoffman freely talks of beng in love with the woman, but says there was no physical relationship.

In 1977 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the school, Hoffmann took a one-year sabbatical before returning to Montana as an interim priest at Culbertson. Later he would be assigned to St. Bernard's Catholic Church in Billings.

During this time he also confronted his problem with alcohol, and in 1981 he entered an alcohol-treatment center. He has been sober since.

In 1984, the nonprofit St. Labre Indian School Educational Association assumed control of the school, and Hoffmann returned as development director.

Although he officially retired in 1993 from St. Labre, he hasn't stopped working, despite several heart attacks.

"Somehow I always pull through," he said about his health problems.

His most recent project has been building the Heritage Center, an assisted-living facility for the elderly, which opened its doors in 2002.

During an oral history project in the 1970s, Northern Cheyenne chiefs speaking their language were taped asking Hoffman about the need for a place to take care of the elders of the tribe. Hoffmann didn't get the message until 20 years later when he came across the tape and had it translated.

"It was like a call from the grave," he said.

He went to work raising money to build the Heritage Center. Because most of the residents don't have much money and have minimal Social Security and no retirement pensions, he continues to raise money to pay off the building debt and upkeep on the facility.

"One day at a time, and we'll get it done," he said.



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