Francis Xavier Pierz

Francis Xavier Pierz


Early life

"Father Pierz" was born on November 20, 1785 to a peasant family in Godica, near the Carniolan town of Kamnik in the Slovene Lands, then part of the Austrian Empire. He entered the seminary of Ljubljana in the fall of 1810 and was ordained on March 13, 1813 by Bishop Antonius Kautschitz. Two of his brothers would also become priests.

After seven years as assistant pastor of the mountain parishes of Kranjska Gora and Fužine, he was appointed as the parish priest of the village of Pece and Podbrezje. After years of attempting to improve farming methods among the poor farmers of his parish, he published the book "Kranjski Vertnar" (The Carniolan Gardner) in 1830. His efforts lead to his being awarded a special medal of honor by the Carniolan Agricultural Society in 1842.


In 1835, he departed for the missions of the United States after years of eagerly reading the letters of the Slovenian missionary priest, and future Bishop, Father Frederic Baraga. He arrived in the Diocese of Detroit on September 16 and presented his credentials to Bishop Frederick John Conrad Rese. As the oncoming winter had already frozen Lake Superior, Father Pierz was prevented from immediately joining Father Baraga in Wisconsin and was instead assigned to the Ottawa (tribe) Indians of Cross Village. In the summer of 1836, Bishop Rese transferred him to the mission of Sault Ste. Marie, where Father Pierz fought to keep the struggling mission alive, while sailing to various other missions around the shores of Lake Superior.

On June 28, 1838, he finally was able to visit Father Baraga at La Pointe, Wisconsin. After a very friendly visit, Baraga persuaded Father Pierz to re-establish the mission at Grand Portage, Minnesota. The formerly great trading post had been deeply affected by the decline of the fur trade, but the Ojibwa Indians who continued to live there had turned to harvesting the fish of Lake Superior and selling their catches to the American Fur Company. A "half breed" agent for the Company named Pierre Picotte had carefully been instructing them in the Catechism and preparing them to be received into the Catholic Church. Father Pierz's letters describe how deeply impressed by how easily the Ojibwa of Grand Portage embraced Catholicism.

It has been written since that Father Pierz did his best work in the short time he was stationed at Grand Portage. He arranged for the clearing of a plot of farmland which, in keeping with Indian ways, was owned and worked in common. The produce was sold to nearby white miners. A school was founded for the children of the mission. His letters provide a vivid glimpse into daily life on the mission. The missions at Fort William, Ontario and Isle Royale were also under his jurisdiction. But in October 1839, he was ordered to leave Grand Portage and take over the Missions surrounding Harbor Springs, Michigan. He would remain there for a total of twelve years.


In the Spring of 1852, after a series of disputes with his Bishop, he secured a release from the Diocese of Detroit and departed for the newly founded Minnesota Territory. There Bishop Joseph Crétin was desperate for priests to evangelize his vast Diocese.

Father Pierz was assigned a vast mission field, comprising the whole of Minnesota located north of the Twin Cities. He set up his headquarters at the drunken boomtown of Old Crow Wing, now the location of Crow Wing State Park. He travelled between his missions on foot, carrying all that was necessary for the saying of Mass on his back. The Ojibwa dubbed him, "Old Man, Black Gown," and, viewing him as a man of great power, occasionally stole his socks as a folk remedy against rheumatism.


After the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851, much of Southern and Central Minnesota was declared open to White settlement. Father Pierz, noticing that settlement was being dominated by Protestant Yankees, began actively promoting Minnesota settlement among German-American Catholics. Writing in newspapers such as "Der Wahrheitsfreund" ("The Friend of Truth"), based in Cincinnati, Ohio, he wrote glowing descriptions of Minnesota's climate, its soil, and its large tracts of free land.

In May 1855, the first great wave of German, Luxemburger, and Slovene settlers began to arrive in large numbers, staking out claims throughout modern Morrison County, Benton County and Stearns County, Minnesota. With his Bishop unable to finance his work, he began to rely on the Ludwig-Missionsverein and the Leopoldinen-Stiftung for desperately needed funds. Both organizations had been formed to finance Catholic missionaries abroad and were mainly financed by the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach and the Austro-Hungarian House of Habsburg.

Finding himself unable to single-handedly look after both the settlers and the Ojibwa, Father Pierz pleaded with Bishop Crétin to send more priests to assist him. The Bishop responded by writing to Abbot Boniface Wimmer of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. On May 21, 1856 a party of five Benedictine priests disembarked from a steamboat at Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. Saint John's Abbey traces its foundation to their arrival. Father Pierz, unable to be there to greet them, had left behind a letter for the party's leader, Father Demetrius de Marogna. The letter formally transferred his missions in and around Sauk Rapids to the jurisdiction of the Benedictine Order.

In 1863, Father Pierz sailed for Europe to recruit further priests for the Minnesota missions. Among those who returned with him were Father Joseph Buh, Father Ignaz Tomazin, and Father (later Bishop) James Trobec.

Last years and death

In 1871, he reluctantly accepted the limitations of age and retired to a parish at the French Canadian settlement of Rich Prairie, Morrison County (now Pierz, Minnesota).

In the Fall of 1873, he took ship for Slovenia, where he intended to live out the last years of his life. After spending the Winter at the Franciscan monastery in his native Kamnik, he removed himself to Ljubljana, where he remained a permanent guest in the Archdiocesan Chancery. He succumbed to senile dementia and died on January 22, 1880. After a traditional Requiem Mass, he was interred in Saint Christopher's Cemetery, Ljubljana. This cemetery was razed during World War II and Father Pierz now rests in an unmarked grave.


Father Pierz continues to be fondly remembered in both his native land and in Central Minnesota. A statue of him was dedicated before the St. Cloud Hospital in 1952. In addition, he remains a popular figure in Minnesota folklore, with stories about him continuing to be passed down among both the Ojibwa and the Catholics of Central Minnesota. The town of Pierz, Minnesota is named in his honor.

In Slovenia, a bronze monument to him stands in Podbrezje, his last parish assignment before leaving for America. A massive collection of his letters and poetry are preserved in the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia in Ljubljana. Also, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum possesses a large number of rare Indian artifacts which were collected and donated by Father Pierz.


"A missioner in America is like a plaything in the hand of God. Sufferings and joys alternate constantly. No conquest for the Kingdom can be achieved here without exertion and the sweat of one’s brow. Our dear Lord permits us to be humiliated and prepared by much suffering before he employs us as instruments of His mercy in the conversion of the Pagans and allows us to enjoy the comforts of soul their spiritual rebirth causes." [ Father Pierz to Father Augustine Sluga of Kranj, Slovenia, May 1, 1836. From a translation published by the Central Blatt and Social Justice, May 1934. ]


"I remember an incident of Father Pierz and a man named Dugal, the Government blacksmith at Crow Wing. This Dugal was quite pious but went on a spree once in a while - once a month. And Father Pierz would meet him in this condition and say to him in French, 'You are drunk again, my pig.' Once, on a trip to Leech Lake, Father Pierz got ahold of Dugal's supply of whiskey and only gave it out to him in small portions. Dugal begged for the bottle but Pierz said, 'No, no, you my pig.' Dugal when drunk feared Pierz. Once as he saw Pierz entering a store and knowing he was under a good supple of liquor, Dugal hid himself under a buffalo robe. But Pierz chatted and stayed so long that Dugal finally gave up and, casting off the robe, said, 'Father, I confess!'" ["Stories of Father Pierz," collected on the White Earth Reservation during the 1920s by Father Benno Watrin, OSB. Taken from the Archives of the College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota. ]


* Father Pierz attended seminary during the occupation of his homeland by Napoleon and would always be able to speak fluent French. He would later add six other languages to his repertoire, besides his native Slovene, he also spoke and wrote German, Italian, English, Ojibwa, and Ottawa.



* Father William Furlan, "In Charity Unfeigned; The Life of Father Francis X. Pierz," c. Diocese of Saint Cloud, 1952.
* Father Robert Voigt, "Crow Wing and Father Pierz," c. Diocese of Saint Cloud, 1989.

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