WATONGA — St. David Pendleton Oakerhater's beloved Whirlwind Church and Mission will soon get a new, permanent home. Despite some wind damage from recent storms, Oklahoma Episcopal leaders are moving forward with the planned dedication of the Oakerhater Episcopal Center in Watonga. The center, named after the revered Cheyenne Indian Episcopal clergyman, is to be dedicated at 2 p.m. Sept. 8. The Rev. Jim Kee-Rees said activities will include a dinner and the Whirlwind Church's annual honor dance in recognition of Oakerhater. In 1895, Oakerhater (1847-1931) became the first American Indian to be recognized in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church. Kee-Rees said the cost of the new center bearing the clergyman's name is estimated at $670,000, which includes the building and work on the grounds surrounding it. He said the center wasn't damaged in the windstorm and flooding that struck the Watonga area in August, other than some roof shingles that were blown off. However, a brush arbor used to shelter powwow audiences was blown over along with a nearby sweat lodge. Kee-Rees said he and others hoped to fix the brush arbor in time for the upcoming dedication. Several trees on the grounds were toppled by heavy wind and will be missed, he said. Kee-Rees said he considered postponing the dedication because of the storm damage, but the activities had been planned for many months. Proceeding with the scheduled event will allow people who come for the annual honor dance to see the progress being made on the center, he said. They can look forward to the building's completion in time for next year's event. "A number of people have a lot of hopes and dreams for this space,” Kee-Rees said as he looked around the building taking shape. "We've got lots of prayers here.”
Oakerhater and Whirlwind live onKee-Rees, a Choctaw Indian, is the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma's new Native American missioner, hired in January. Kee-Rees, 40, of Norman serves as pastor of the Whirlwind Church of the Holy Family, which derived from the Whirlwind Church founded by Oakerhater near Watonga in 1907. Oakerhater also had a Whirlwind School, where he taught 25 students. Kee-Rees said the church meets in a small building in Watonga but will hold services in the new center once it is completed. He said the building will serve as a gathering place not only for the 50-plus predominately American-Indian congregants of Whirlwind, but also other groups. Kee-Rees said he envisions the building being a worship center and cultural center where members of the Watonga community can take arts and crafts classes, hold meetings and coordinate events designed to foster dialogue between American Indians and other racial groups. "Our overall goal of this is to bring people together, to meet each other and to make friends across cultures,” he said. "It's about developing relationships.” Kee-Rees said he will divide his time between the center and his office at the diocese's Episcopal Center in downtown Oklahoma City once the new building is finished. He said he will conduct Whirlwind Church services there and also work to coordinate future projects such as mentoring programs for youths. Kee-Rees said computers funded through grants have arrived and plans are being made for their use. Once the center is open — a completion date has not been determined — Kee-Rees said he will move into his main duty: to inform Oklahoma Episcopalians about American Indian issues and mission possibilities. He sees it as a continuation of the Oakerhater legacy.
Beyond the wallsDesigned by architect Hans Butzer, who also designed the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the Oakerhater Center likely will be a destination point for many. Kee-Rees said he hopes that it becomes what his predecessor, the Rev. Jim Knowles, had envisioned as he preached to, aided and loved the Whirlwind Church congregation of years past. Kee-Rees said he is confident that the work of the church will move beyond the center's four walls. It is the only way to ensure Oakerhater's powerful legacy of faith continues. "I think the diocese, by having me and the previous missioner here, is saying, ‘We want to focus on this. We are respecting and honoring this rich heritage and history in our state — and part of that is the Good News.” Part of that heritage is ensuring that other American Indians follow in Oakerhater's footsteps of faith. "We hope to get more Native American deacons and priests in Episcopal ministry. I think it's a very doable dream,” Kee-Rees said.
Oakerhater Episcopal Center dedication, honor dance•Where: southeast Watonga, near Laing and Russworm/State Highway 33. •When: honor dance, 2 p.m. Sept. 8; dinner at 5:30 p.m. •Information: the Rev. Jim Kee-Rees, 232-4820.