Lac qui Parle Mission keeps the word and music of early missionaries and Dakota alive

For 21 years, the Lac qui Parle Mission, overlooking the Minnesota River, provided both education and Christian religion to members of the Dakota. Nearly 170 years later the memory of the mission is still commemorated by the reconstructed mission building in the Lac qui Parle State Park and in the annual Mission Sunday service.

Lac qui Parle Mission 001.jpg
Celeste Suter, executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, walks up to the Lac qui Parle Mission on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
We are part of The Trust Project.

MONTEVIDEO — On the second Sunday of July at the Lac qui Parle Mission, if one ignores all signs of the modern era, they could almost believe themselves back in the 1840s, when the mission was first built and the sounds of worship filled the surrounding prairie. It is fitting that "lac qui parle" means "lake that speaks," because this area still speaks in the voices of its ancestors, both Dakota and white.

"There is something about sitting here, listening to the Lac qui Parle hymn being sung in Dakota, at the place where it was written" during Mission Sunday, the annual celebration of the mission and its history, said Celeste Suter, executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society. "It gives you chills."

The hymn wasn't the only major accomplishment at Lac qui Parle. The mission was one of the first churches founded in what would become the state of Minnesota and it also had one of the first English-speaking schools as well.

Lac qui Parle Mission 002.jpg
An old organ sits inside the Lac qui Parle Mission on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

"There were a lot of important firsts at the mission," Suter said. "The first church bell tolled, so I have been told, first cloth woven and, most importantly, the Dakota language was written down for the first time."

Twenty years of spreading the Word

The Lac qui Parle Mission was founded in 1835 by missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, at the invitation of Joseph Renville, a well known Dakota-French fur trader. Renville, a practicing Catholic, had been introduced to Christianity while he attended school in Canada.


"He had already experienced religion and he wanted to share that with the people that he knew in the area," Suter said.

Lac qui Parle Mission 003.jpg
Celeste Suter, who serves as the executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, examines the original location of the Williamson Cabin near the Lac qui Parle Mission on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The first missionaries arrived in July 1835 to the small fur trading post of Fort Renville along the Minnesota River, about eight miles northwest of what would be Montevideo. The mission would be located about a mile south of the fort.

Those first missionaries included Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson and his wife, Margaret Poage; Alexander Huggins and his wife, Lydia Pettijohn Huggins; Lucy Stevens; and Sarah Poage. Eventually, other missionaries would follow.

"There were no white people in the area for another 30 years," Suter said. "Just fur traders and missionaries."

Site of Lac qui Parle Mission 1915.jpg
The site of the Lac qui Parle Mission, circa 1915. Today the area is full of trees, but when the mission was built, the area was mostly wide open prairie.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

These missionaries moved to what was still Dakota land and under the tribes' jurisdiction. The missionaries couldn't force the Dakota to convert or change their way of life.

"The women were more likely to convert than the men," Suter said. By the summer of 1841, there were 38 Dakota women members of the church and only two men.

For the first five years, church services and school classes were held in the Williamson cabin. The church building was constructed in 1840, with the Dakota women members doing quite a bit of the work, as was traditional in Dakota tribes.

The building was made of adobe mud bricks due to the lack of wood, though it was clad in clapboard a year later. The church's bell was installed in 1842, purchased using funds raised by the sale of moccasins made by the Dakota members of the church.


Lac qui Parle Mission 004.jpg
A guest book shows those who have visited the Lac qui Parle Mission on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

"This was definitely founded for the Dakota people," Suter said.

Being able to preach the Gospel to the Dakota in their own language was extremely important. In an effort to spread Christianity to the Dakota, Renville, brothers Samuel and Gideon Pond and the Rev. Stephen Riggs worked together over several years to create a Dakota alphabet and, in turn, translate the Bible from English and French into Dakota. Prior to the creation of the alphabet, Dakota was traditionally an oral language.

"If not for that (creating the written Dakota language), some of that (Dakota language) might have been lost," Suter said.

Renville, whose close relationships with the area Dakota were important to the mission, died in 1846. He, his wife and a couple of his children are reportedly buried somewhere around the mission site.

"Nobody knows exactly where. We think north of the mission but the site hasn't been definitively found yet," Suter said.

Sign marking Lac qui Parle Mission site 1935.jpg
A site marker at the site of the Lac qui Parle Mission around 1935. By that point, there was nothing left of the mission or its surrounding buildings.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

Suter said the mission began to struggle following Renville's death, though it didn't close for good for another eight years. The two sons of the Rev. Riggs, Thomas and Henry, accidentally set the church building on fire on March 3, 1854. The mission was abandoned later that year.

"It fell into disrepair and it actually deteriorated to the point of falling down," Suter said of the original mission building.

Dig of Lac qui Parle Mission site.jpg
Excavation site of the Lac qui Parle Mission around 1940.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

While the mission and its surrounding cabins vanished over the decades, the mission was remembered. The Minnesota Historical Society has photos in its collection of the site, showing signs and markers pointing to where the mission use to be. The mission got a second life in the early 1940s when the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, built a reproduction of the mission as part of the Lac qui Parle State Park project.


"They did an excavation to find the original foundation," and built the new building right on top of the old stones, Suter said.

The site also includes the ghost outlines of the missionary cabins. The Williamson site includes the original hearthstone.

The entire Lac qui Parle Mission Archaeological Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1973.

SD1LA p5
A photo of the possible dedication celebration of the newly built reproduction of the Lac qui Parle Mission around 1942.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

Mission Sunday

Sunday, July 10, will be the 64th Mission Sunday celebration of the mission and its descendants, both Dakota and missionaries. The event begins at 10:30 a.m. with a guest pastor and a Dakota choir from Sisseton, South Dakota. There is usually a short presentation around 1 p.m. on the mission, a guest speaker and a potluck lunch. It is a great example of Dakota and non-Dakota coming together and commemorating their shared history.

"The cool thing about Mission Sunday is some of the descendants of both Renville and Williamson come," Suter said.

Lac qui Parle Mission 008.jpg
The reconstructed Lac qui Parle Mission sits on its original foundation on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

One of the highlights of the day is the singing of the Lac qui Parle hymn in its original Dakota. The hymn was written by Renville, and its English translation is known as "Many and Great Oh God Are Thy Things." Other Dakota hymns are also sung during the service.

"It is probably one of the few places where you can hear Dakota hymns sung in Dakota," Suter said.

While the Lac qui Parle Mission was in operation only for about 20 years, and — based on the writings from many of the missionaries — not considered a great success, the achievements that came out of it are still being felt today.

Lac qui Parle Mission 005.jpg
Celeste Suter, executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, shows artwork featuring the Lac qui Parle Mission on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

"The descendants, and the people that have continued from that tradition, seem very thankful for the Word being brought to them," Suter said, "which is evident in Mission Sunday."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

What to read next
Juan Polanco-Castro, 49, of Willmar, who was convicted of two counts of second-degree assault-dangerous weapon for stabbing two women, was sentenced Aug. 2 in Kandiyohi County District Court to 23 months in prison.
The Kandiyohi County Board will consider various requests for American Rescue Plan Act funding from various departments. The board has been holding work sessions to discuss how to spend the county's remaining dollars from the COVID-19 stimulus package.
Area funerals scheduled through Aug. 22, 2022
The Tribune publishes Records as part of its obligation to inform readers about the business of public institutions and to serve as a keeper of the local historical record. All items are written by Tribune staff members based on information contained in public documents from the state court system and from law enforcement agencies. It is the Tribune’s policy that this column contain a complete record. Requests for items to be withheld will not be granted.