Black Robes On the Priarie: Dyeing For Tradition

Nov 4, 2019

Portrait of a Benedictine Monk
Credit Jan Polack [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

To the Lakota people, they were the "black robes," those insanely-overdressed white men who, in flat, black hats, moved in as if out of nowhere to bring the basics of the white man's religion.

The Benedictines among them were led by Father Martin Marty, who would become the Vicar Apostolic of Dakota Territory and eventually Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Paul. The Benedictines wore black robes long before they came to America; in fact, they identified themselves thereby and wore those monster cloaks, well, religiously.

Mostly.

The man who would eventually be known as "the Apostle of the Sioux" by his Catholic constituency, if not by the Sioux themselves, Father Marty, was known to be a stickler for ritual of all kinds, certain aspects at least. Early on, back in his native Switzerland, he stood fast on tradition, maintaining virulent opposition anyone who dared claim the Benedictines should sing anything other than ye olde blessed Gregorian chants. 

When Father Marty came to America to take over a failing abbey in Indiana, he was only 26 years old. No matter. In strict traditionalist fashion, he ordered all the brothers to wear the black habits all the time.

Some of them weren't thrilled and did a bit of murmuring--and with good reason. If you worked in the fields, picking weeds, thinning carrots, doing anything in the hot sun, those heavy black robes were a unheavenly encumbrance. The brothers weren't rebelling--they were Benedictines, after all; they simply wanted to make Abbot Martin lighten their lives up a little. Sheesh.

Besides, they said, all that heavy sweat made the black dye run into their unholy underwear, even stain their skin. In truth, those black robes tested their faith and their piety: they even led to sin.

Abbot Martin listened to their complaints and in no uncertain terms told them whatever suffering they claimed by no means warranted their mutual abandonment of the kinds of robes all Benedictines wore, black robes that were, plain and simple, their very identity. Why, to abandon their spiritual apparel would be something akin to stepping out of their vows. No, no, no, he told them, thou shalt continue to don the cassocks. 

“And you know what else?” he said, “I'll spend some hours in the fields myself to show you just exactly how you're wrong you are.”

His biographers claim that good Father Marty was decidedly opinionated, given to seemingly arbitrary rulings on a whim. But ancient testimonies also maintain he was no phony. Whatever spiritual and physical rigors he demanded of the brothers, he took upon himself. 

To prove them wrong, Father Marty himself, in the heat of the day, did hard labor in the Abbey's fields, honorably dressed in the very robes he claimed to be at the heart of the Benedictines’ spiritual identity. He picked up a hoe or a pitchfork and spent most of a hot, hot day--maybe even two or three--sweating like a wrestler. 

And then promptly changed the rules. 

Lo and behold, when he got to his room and lifted that massive cossack from his sweaty torso, he found himself clothed in blackened underwear. One look at his stained skivvies, and the hard-core conservative threw in the towel to a whole new way in a whole new world. 

But then there's this too. When the Sacred Heart Convent he ran picked up and left Yankton, the academy building became a boarding school for Indian boys. When they formed a choice—you can guess, can’t you--their musical repertoire specifically included those same old Gregorian chants.

Wouldn't you know.

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