Buffalo hide adorns the altar. Sage is burned to help cleanse the heart, soul and mind. Ojibwe and Lakota languages are used in many of the prayers and songs. Traditional Indian elements like these have been part of the worship service for decades at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, the only Twin Cities Catholic parish with a predominantly Indian congregation.

The future use of Indian practices, however, is being questioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which temporarily suspended mass at the church last month after conflict arose over the use of specialized wine.

The unrest at Gichitwaa Kateri comes at a time when Pope Benedict has called for renewed emphasis on tradition and uniformity in the Catholic church, leaving churches like Kateri wondering how many, if any, of their traditions may be compromised. Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt also has a history of strongly adhering to orthodox church doctrine.

"Without question there likely will be some changes because, first and foremost, it's a Catholic mass," said Dennis McGrath, archdiocese spokesman. "And then only within that context ... can the native rituals be incorporated."

Maureen Headbird, 54, a church trustee, said the nearly 100 members of the tight-knit parish would be greatly saddened and disappointed if their church lost its distinctive elements, because they are an important part of their Indian heritage.

"We want to make sure our community stays the way it is," said Headbird, who is Indian and was raised Catholic. "When you come to our parish, you really have to have an open mind to see what we do. Sometimes that doesn't work out for everybody."

Conflict follows new pastor

The conflict over the wine began after the arrival of a new pastor in June following the retirement of the Rev. James Notebaart, who served the community for close to 20 years.

Headbird said that before, the congregation typically drank mustum, grape juice that is only minimally fermented, instead of wine because some members of the congregation are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics.

She said the new pastor, the Rev. Stephen Hoffman, questioned the use of mustum and told congregants that wine or mustum would not be distributed during mass. That upset many in the church.

Soon after, parish members received a letter from Hoffman dated Nov. 24, which stated "Archbishop [John] Nienstedt has asked me to relay to you, that given the present situation, there will be no Sunday Mass here ... until further notice. The Chancery will be notifying the elders of the community to set up a meeting to discuss the situation."

Mass was not celebrated at the church Nov. 28, Headbird said, and Hoffman was not present.

Kateri church leaders then met on Friday with Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, who came to the church last Sunday to celebrate mass. He also plans to do the same next Sunday as well, said McGrath.

Piche made few references to Hoffman during mass, and asked the congregation on Sunday that "during this time of transition ... pray to send a pastor here to meet your needs." Neither wine nor mustum was shared at communion.

"This whole situation is now in the hands of Bishop Piche," McGrath said. "He's been designated by the archbishop to handle this. They can celebrate mass at this site, and they will."

As far as potential changes to the Indian elements incorporated in the mass, McGrath said, "that's part of what will be discussed by Piche and the elders."

A long-standing practice

Founded in 1975, Gichitwaa Kateri has added Indian elements to the Catholic ceremony for nearly two decades. A lodge made of willow, structured like a dome-shaped Ojibwe wigwam, contains a bundle that holds sacred things, including the Eucharist. Traditional Ojibwe medicines such as tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass are used as regular parts of the Sunday Eucharist. Drums and prayers and songs in Ojibwe and Lakota are also prominent.

Eric Michael Mazur, a religious studies professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, who has written about Indian religion, said it's not uncommon for ethnic groups to combine elements from their own cultures with the Catholic mass. Most Indians practiced either some form of Christianity or some blend of Christianity and their native traditions, he said.

He notes that much of the church's history with Indians is tainted with strife, death and destruction, and that church officials should be especially sensitive when dealing with parishes like Gichitwaa Kateri. At the same time, however, wine is a crucial and sacred element to the mass and is a key difference between Catholic and many Protestant faiths that use grape juice instead of wine, he added.

"In some ways, the wine may be an irreconcilable difference," Mazur said. "In the Catholic church, the wine becomes the actual blood of Christ. In Protestant churches, mostly, it's a recollection of an event and not the mystery of the sacrament that it is for Catholics."

Rose French • 612-673-4352