Builder of first church in St. Paul had no easy life

July 27, 2010

Bobz Book Reviews

Galtier biography cover

“Lucien Galtier — Pioneer Priest,”

by Marianne Luban

Minnesota history buffs, and especially Minnesota Catholic history enthusiasts, will appreciate the research that author Marianne Luban has gathered for this first biography of the priest who built the very first log church in St. Paul.

A street, a school, a plaza, an apartment tower and a handful of other entities in the Minnesota capital bear the name Galtier and pay homage to the interesting French missionary who saw a promising future for a bend in the Mississippi River and had the wisdom to force the former Pig’s Eye Landing to be renamed after the great Apostle to the Gentiles.

Father Lucien Galtier’s letters are the major source for this story, along with the letters of the pioneer bishops and priests who established the church in the Upper Midwest and historical records of the dioceses in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Luban does an excellent job of getting across this tale of hardship and suffering, and her research gives new insight into the iconic figure whose name lives on long after his death in 1866 at the age of 54.

The French missionaries arrived in the New World zealous to convert the “barbarian” native people to Christianity, and they suffered greatly in their efforts. Luban helps us see Galtier as a somewhat different missionary:

“Galtier clearly did not view himself as an expendable sacrifice to the cause. He was a man who knew his own worth and became troubled when he thought his talents were being wasted. He did not shrink from his duty, as he saw it, but preferred to do it with a modicum of dignity. Comfort, of course, was out of the question, but the sheer deprivation Galtier face year after year seemed to him in aid of nothing but the breaking of the spirit.”

A complex man

The bulk of Galtier’s letters, then, are complaints to his bishop — nagging, whining and demanding. But Luban helps us see another side of the missionary through other sources.  The priest is said to have had a remarkable personality and power — “the face of a Caesar and the heart of a Madonna” — a strong, rich singing voice. And he was a workaholic.

We learn that although Father Lucien was sent to Minnesota to convert the Indians, he struggled with the Sioux language, and found that he preferred ministering to those who were already committed Catholics. Sent to build a church in Keokuk, Iowa, he took over an old house, “covered part of the back room, made a door, placed a small window, laid out a wood floor and plastered a little,” he wrote to Bishop Mathias Loras in Dubuque, but as was his want, he added:

“I don’t want to be all the time a plasterer, a carpenter, a cook, and others, but only a priest, a holy priest, and a priest a little more involved than in Keokuk.”

As interesting as the reading is and as informative as it is about the pioneer church in the mid-19th century, the material has the potential to be a much more.

What if…

First, the work needed a stronger editor and proofreader. There is a bad typo that moves an action inexplicably from 1843 to 1943. Also, no professional editor would have allowed an author to acknowledge that she asked an astrologer to come up with a personality profile of her subject.

No editor worth his or her salt would have allowed the text to go off on so many tangents.

Time after time Galtier’s biography wanders, sidetracked by anecdotes about other priests of the era. A good example is the tale about the  priest who shot one of the early bishops of Winona, MN. It’s as if in her research the author came across some juicy tidbit and couldn’t resist putting it in the book that was ostensibly a biography of just one priest.

Second, this really is good material — great research — but I couldn’t help but wonder how much impact it might have if done in another literary genre. Rather than the biography of one priest, the captivating stories of the lives of several priests who served the Upper Midwest in pioneer times would make an interesting and very readable historical novel.

Because Galtier wrote no autobiography, Luban has been led to make assumptions about him. That’s fodder more for a work of fiction, not biography. Second use of the material? — bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski