The airwaves and printing presses were buzzing last week all around Montana, and even nationally. For a change, the buzz was good. The media, including USA Today and the local CBS affiliate, was telling a story of great hope emanating from a tiny town called Browning, located on the plains just east of the continental divide and 50 miles south of the Canadian border.
I was lucky enough to be there, one of a group representing Catholic Extension, the narrator of this amazing story. We had come from Chicago, led by Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall, to present our annual Lumen Christi award to Fr. Ed Kohler, a hero of Browning. The name of the award comes from Latin, meaning “light of Christ,” and we award it annually to someone who demonstrates the power of faith to transform lives and communities.
Fr. Kohler, originally from Missoula, Montana, has spent three decades working among the Blackfeet Native people in rural Montana. The 64 year-old “Fr. Ed” is pastor of Little Flower Parish in this town of 3,000, where the average income is around $5,000, and the average life expectancy is not much over 50 years. Depression, alcoholism and addiction are rampant. But in the midst of so much hardship, Fr. Kohler and his parish community inspire hope.
Chief Earl Old Person is the leader of the Blackfeet nation and spoke at the ceremony. Standing before the crowd wearing his magnificent eagle feather headdress, Chief Earl said, “Our ancestors have always struggled to survive,” but added that people like Fr. Ed and the community of Little Flower make him optimistic about the future of his Nation.
Fr. Kohler gives witness to the transformative power of faith. He gathers his people and nourishes hungry hearts, convincing them to believe in themselves and hope in God.
Consequently, this parish community can be proud of so much. It has robust youth groups; an academically successful Catholic school (grades 4-8) that is the “passport” from poverty to a better future for scores of native children; and a nationally renowned spiritual retreat movement, which has helped thousands of adults free themselves from destructive behavior and addiction .
But back to the scene last week: imagine hundreds of people gathered to celebrate. Community members, tribal leaders, parishioners, local civic leaders, the diocesan bishop (to whom the Blackfeet people have given the name, “Holy Warrior”) all packed in a crowded gymnasium, all thrilled for their beloved Fr. Ed.
The community sang traditional Blackfeet songs in their native tongue, along with religious songs, such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” delivered in a Country-Cowboy style that was slow, smooth, and twangy. Later, we asked Fr. Ed how the nearly half million dollars of financial support provided by Catholic Extension’s donors has helped his ministry at Little Flower parish. He simply wept. Then he said, “Catholic Extension and its donors are really the light of Christ for us.”
We’re all hungry for good news like this. All of us need to know about the Ed Kohlers and the Little Flower parishes that are reaching amazing heights with stunningly few resources, in the face of tremendous social, economic and spiritual challenge.
– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management
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