Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp.157-58.
Sister Irene Mahoney has made a valuable contribution to the history of her Ursuline Order's work among Indians in Montana during the latter years of the nineteenth century, the "golden age" of the western missions. Beyond that, she has provided a useful model for historians who might wish to follow her lead eschewing "presentism" in favor of historical context and perspective.
She offers solid information and reasoned insights into the lives and work of the missionaries, noting that their motives may have been "flawed" by today's understanding, but also that there could be no doubt that the Ursulines who came to Montana's missions were sincerely dedicated to the work of saving souls and improving the physical lives of those to whom they ministered. True, they attempted to convert and "civilize" their young charges via boarding schools where children were separated from their families and where the nuns might hope to expunge all aspects of Native language, culture, and customs. However, that did not make them villains in their own day. Rather it placed them pretty much in the mainstream of reform thinking as well as in line with government policies seeking to assimilate Native people into the larger society and economy. The fact remains that in retrospect their misplaced efforts to suppress Native customs in support of conversion and assimilation had mixed results at best. That they would largely fail in the attempt could have been foretold given today's understanding and perspective. As the author notes, however, that was an understanding and perspective not available to them at the time.