The Akimbo Cross

Nov 21, 2016

The akimbo cross above the entrance to St. Mary's Chapel in Flandreau, South Dakota
Credit James Schaap

The day lilies planted around the little frame church are mostly a weed patch. The dried-up front door begs paint, the cross at the peak just above it is bent slightly in fashion that’s sad for a cross, akimbo. An electrical cord from somewhere inside dangles over the peak, suggesting that if you want juice inside you set up a generator on the badly-pitched front step.

A young woman from the Flandreau Indian School just across the street smiled strangely at me when I asked her if there was any possibility I could go in. You know the look--"why on earth would you want to?" St. Mary's Chapel looks like a place so long ago left behind that what's inside could be nightmarish. Its best years are memories. If that.

"It belongs to the tribe," she told me, meaning not the school. The two are separate in the small town of Flandreau, South Dakota, not all that far away. Oddly enough, the tribe, the Santees, aren’t so much a part of the school, so the two are separate in the way things can be separate in small towns, as in, well, walled off.

The namesake of St. Mary’s Chapel is a woman named Mary Hinman, whose story--what can be known of it—may well be remembered best by her tombstone in a tiny cemetery about 160 miles south in Santee, Nebraska. Mary Hinman was the dutiful wife of the Rev. Samuel Hinman, dreamer, prophet, mover-and-a shaker, and tireless Episcopalian priest who suffered all the tribulations the Santees did, with them, after the Dakota War, when most of them were run out of Minnesota. 

Samuel Hinman, her husband buried 300 of the people he served on a bloody path from the Lower Sioux Reservation to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, to Ft. McClellan, Iowa, to Crow Creek, South Dakota, and finally to a kindly strip of reservation land along the Missouri in northeast Nebraska. 

Whether Hinman had time for a marriage will forever be a good question. For years, he and Mary were miles and cultures apart. He was building a mission dedicated to the suffering Santees, a school and a church on the brand new reservation, along with a home for his wife and children, all of it with funds from donors back east.

Then a tornado destroyed everything, flattened the house he'd built for his wife and sons. Mary Hinman died, sometime later, of injuries from which she never recovered.

The stone in the cemetery at the Santee Reservation testifies to her love for the people she and her husband served in the Church of the Most Merciful Savior, the church her husband founded. That stone bears a glorious legacy: “A token of the affectionate remembrance of the Santee Women for Mary Hinman,” all of it in caps.

It’s worth a trip just to read it.

Some Santees left their Nebraska reservation for the big bend of the Sioux River in what would become Flandreau, South Dakota. And when the Episcopalians built their first church in 1867, they came without their pastor/dreamer, who was embroiled in scandals, sexual and financial, a recital of sins that, even though unproved, still make you weep.

What little can be known of Mary—what’s there on the cemetery stone and here in an old almost forgotten chapel--is almost enough to make me pull weeds from the day lilies, maybe scrape and paint that patchy front door, get rid of that noose-like electrical cord, and, on a ladder, straighten the akimbo cross above the door.

I wish the world would know more about Mary Hinman's love, but that’s not about to happen. Truth is, I'd settle for making sure the good folks of Flandreau, South Dakota, know what kind of treasure stands right there among 'em. That's not likely to happen either.

Sometimes the very best we can is something akin to that akimbo cross.