Remembering a saint among us: The Venerable Vine Deloria, Sr, 1901-1990

April, 1990

October 20, 1984

Dear Bishop,

I rose this morning at 5:00 am. 1 walked a mile and then returned home to begin my morning with a pot of coffee and my pipe. Next I recited the ten commandants and the summary of the law in full. No bob-tailing either. I sing the chants.

Thus began a typical letter in a long-standing series of letters to me from Father Vine Deloria written from the summer of 1984 through the end of 1988. Father Deloria began his correspondence in 1984 using his “Smith-Corona, which seems to be constantly in need of repair.” With age and the increased difficulty in typing, he wrote in long hand on yellow legal paper and always apologized for changing from typewritten format to pen and finally to pencil. Such apologies revealed something of this priest, a formal person who carried with him a deep sense of pride and dignity. The content of the letters, however, reveal a more informal, loving and deeply committed author. I can picture Vine with his morning coffee and pipe, having said his prayers, reflecting and ruminating on his experiences of life and ministry. As he stated in many of his letters, this was a special time for him, a time when alone he would think about the meaning of life and the state of the Church.

Upon the news of his death I found myself rereading Vine’s letters as a way of prayerfully conversing with him and bidding him farewell. Vine was an unusual man, a person in many ways ahead of his time. He could speak with clarity and conviction against discrimi­nation and institutional racism be it in the Church, state or federal government. His commitment coupled with his charisma made him the kind of person that one listened to and took with utmost serious­ness. As a prophet, Vine’s letters and his life reveal a deep grounding and love of history and tradition. His correspondence is replete with the call for sound teaching and the need to remember and rehearse the catechism and the scriptures with regularity. His own discipline or “rule of life,” is testimony to such love of the tradition.

In his later letters, Father Deloria rehearsed personal events in his own life that were particularly meaningful. One such event was a very early conversion experience or call to the ministry.

July 10, 1986

“1 was a seventeen year old, cocky, arrogant teenager. Then conver­sion came. A voice about 150 yards away. The celebrant’s voice. High voice, too. ‘God spake these words and said thou shalt have no other Gods but me.’ Then about three hundred or more voices! ‘Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law.’ I bet horses staked out by long ropes, grazing, stopped, raised their heads with grass in their mouths and listened.”

Father Deloria’s deep love of the tradition and his gift for speaking the prophetic word were reflected in the images and meta­phors that he used in talking about the Church and ministry itself. Drawing on his experience as exceptional athlete and student at military school, Father Deloria likened the ministry to a battle with evil or a football game,

“Father was the superintending Presbyter of the Standing Rock Reservation of seven chapels. I used to day dream that his co-workers be organized like a military school:

Privates – congregational lay people

Corporals – lay readers

Sergeants – catechists

Lieutenants – deacons

Captains – priests

Majors – bishops

I never knew of the Presiding Bishops in those days so I went no further. My point in writing this is what beautiful conduct we had. How, as teenagers, we were so proud of God and country. We were often told one of these without the other is useless.” (October 16, 1987)

His frequent use of “team ministry” marked him as one who well understood the meaning of what we now call “total” or the “full ministry of the Church.” Clearly, Vine was ahead of his time in seeing the need for a coordinated, cohesive and caring ministry that involved all baptized persons in the Church.

Father Deloria stated that his best friends and heroes were Moses and Jesus. In his letters he frequently spoke of the leadership qualities of Moses and the deep kinship and friendship he felt with Jesus. He was suspicious of St. Paul,

“Paul said my Gospel was revealed to me from heaven, not from flesh and blood. Well, Paul, I prefer the flesh and blood of Jesus.” (February 6, 1986)

Vine noted, “All we need to become like our ancestors again is for us to try to be like Jesus, who was simple, sensible, sound, solid, stimulating and stabilizing. He had determination, endurance, thoroughness and patience. He strove to live on all his four natural, human sides which are to be whole mentally, physically, spiritually and morally. He was richly rewarded in the form of a powerful personality which magneti­cally pulled multitudes to where he was or went.” (August 6, 1985)

In the dozens of letters that I received from Vine Deloria for the four and one half years that he corresponded, I found care and encour­agement in his sharing of his thoughts and memories of Niobrara Con­vocations in days gone by. His openness and selfless humility in sharing his own story and his ability to recount both the painful and the hopeful continue as a source of inspiration. Vine was also given to a wonderful sense of humor, “My father once said, ‘I have eight children and two of them are liars and embellishers of what has been told to them, Ella and Vide.” (Letter dated July 10,1986)

I will miss Vine Deloria. I will miss the sparkle in his eye, the mischievous smile, the wonderful gift for telling stories and the crisp prophetic word. I will miss his leadership at the National Church and diocesan level. I will miss his counsel and advice and his deep sense of care, commitment and conviction. I will miss his wonderful letters. In missing him, I am setting aside his birthdate, October 6, 1901, as a day when Vine will be remembered and revered as one of the saints of the Diocese of South Dakota.

In Christ,


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