Wheeling Jesuit Professor Named to Investigate the Cause of Canonization for Nicholas Black Elk

  WJU Communications
  Wednesday, May 9, 2018 11:59 AM
  Academics, WJU News

Wheeling, WV

Wheeling Jesuit University’s Rev. Michael Steltenkamp, S.J. is one of three ‘experts’ appointed by the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota to examine whether Nicholas Black Elk should be considered for canonization by the Catholic Church.

image-1.pngSteltenkamp, professor of Religious Studies and Theology at WJU, was named to the Historical Commission to examine the writings of the Servant of God, Nicholas Black Elk. He noted the term “Servant of God” is the “first hurdle of the canonization process.”

PHOTO at right: Nicholas Black Elk

The Lakota (Sioux) leader embraced Catholicism and that conversion resulted in his work as a catechist leading to more than 400 baptisms on the Pine Ridge reservation. 

“Making someone a saint in the Catholic Church is a very rare process. Being named to the Commission places me in the role of helping to determine if Black Elk's cause for canonization should proceed. When I set out to learn about his life and write about it, I never imagined my search would lead to the Church considering him for sainthood,” Steltenkamp said. “The American Bishops have authorized his being named what’s called a ‘Servant of God’ and this appointment places me on a commission that will document his life.”

Steltenkamp was chosen as he is the premier biographer of the former Indian “medicine man.” He has written two books about Black Elk – both of which are key resources that report his life as a catechist. The books are: Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic.  

Steltenkamp mused: “I just happen to be someone who knows a fair amount about this man's life -- so I was asked to be part of the process.” He added “WJU now has someone involved with quite an arcane realm of Church life.” 

He will be joined on the committee by a historian from South Dakota and an archivist from Marquette University. 

“I never imagined my search for religious knowledge would be the springboard for Black Elk’s canonization cause. My experience was not that of being a visionary advocate. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, all people make their contribution to the world around them. As a college student, I found the man’s sanctity compelling—unaware that he had any interaction with Christianity or Jesuit priests,” Steltenkamp said. 

It was in learning his entire life-story, that Steltenkamp undertook the academic task of trying to explain Black Elk’s behavior. “Initially, I was not aware that his vision of the Sacred paralleled my own, but after learning that it did, my goal was not to evangelize, but to provide an anthropological analysis of why he adopted the Christian worldview. In the course of this effort, it never occurred to me that I would one day be associated with a movement to canonize the man,” he added.

“This is a well-deserved honor for Fr. Steltenkamp. His research and writings place him in rare company – one who has much knowledge about Black Elk’s life. All of us at Wheeling Jesuit are proud of his appointment to the commission reviewing the canonization process,” said Dr. Debra Townsley, president of Wheeling Jesuit University.


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