It's a stretch, I know, but as long as we're in the neighborhood this woebegone chapel is such a significant part of the story that it bears mentioning . The church is only a mile from the cemetery, just outside the gates--and there are gates--of the Flandreau Indian School across the street. St. Mary's chapel is not part of the history of the old River Bend Church--and it is, too.
Today, the day lilies planted around the place are mostly a weed patch. The dried up front door cries out for paint, the cross at the peak just above it is awkwardly akimbo, and an electrical cord from inside dangles over everything, suggesting that if you want juice inside, you better set up a generator on the badly pitched front step.
A young woman from the school--I talked to her just across the street--smiled strangely at me when I asked her if I could go in. You know the look--"why would you want to?" St. Mary's chapel looks like a place so long ago left behind that what's inside could be nightmarish. It's best years are memories. If that.
"Today it belongs to the tribe," she told me, meaning not the school. The two are separate in the small town of Flandreau, oddly enough, separate in the way things can be separate in small towns, as in walled off.
The chapel is named after Mary Hinman, whose story--what can be known of it--is something I've told before. She was the dutiful wife of the Rev. Samuel Hinman, who was a dreamer, a prophet, a mover-and-a shaker, a tireless Episcopalian priest who suffered the tribulations of the Santees with the Santees after the Dakota War, buried 300 of the people he served on a bloody path that led from the Lower Sioux Reservation in Minnesota to Ft. Snelling to Ft. McClellan, to Crow Creek, and finally, after torturous negotiations, to a strip of land along the Missouri River in far northeast Nebraska.
Whether Hinman had time for a marriage amid all that work is a good question. For years, he and his wife, Mary, were miles and cultures apart. He was building an empire, a mission dedicated to the suffering Santees, a compound that included a school and a hospital right there on the brand new reservation, along with a home for his wife and children, all of it with funds from well-heeled donors back east, men whose favor he had to curry.
Then a tornado came and destroyed everything. It flattened the house he'd built for his wife and sons. She died, sometime later, of injuries from which she never recovered. The stone in the cemetery at the Santee Reservation boldly testifies to her love for the people she and her husband served.
Eventually, some of those Santees left their Nebraska reservation for the big bend of the Sioux River in what would become South Dakota. The Presbyterians built the original River Bend church in 1867. Some time later, some of Hinman's Episcopalians came north and east too, sans their pastor/dreamer, who, now a widower, was embroiled in scandals, sexual and financial, whose recital still makes you weep.
This old place, The Church of St. Mary, is named after the preacher's long-suffering and compassionate wife, a woman back then held in "AFFECTIONATE REMEMBRANCE" by "THE SANTEE WOMEN." Even untended as it is today, it's a blessed memorial to respect and love and Christian mercy.
Honestly, I'd like to pull those weeds out of the day lilies, scrape and paint that front door, get rid of that noose-like electrical cord, and straighten that old akimbo cross on the door. I'd like to tell the world about Mary Hinman's love, but that won't happen. Truth is, I'd settle for telling just the good smalltown folks of Flandreau, South Dakota, what kind of treasure is right there among 'em. That's not likely to happen either.
Sometimes the very best we can do resembles something akin to that akimbo cross.