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Franciscan Ministry
St. Mary Mission a ‘Jewel in the Desert’ for Navajo Nation in New Mexico

Dale Jamison, OFM (right), celebrated Mass for this Navajo couple’s 60th wedding anniversary at St. Mary Mission.

Imagine life without running water, gas and electricity. Outhouses for toilets. Woodburning stoves the only source of heat. Laborious journeys to the mountains for wood, and to natural springs to fill containers with water for drinking, cooking and bathing. On top of these hardships, there’s food insecurity and barely enough money for clothes and other necessities. This is reality for families living in run-down trailer homes and hogans (octagonal-shaped, single-room dwellings) that dot the vast landscape around Tohatchi on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

In the more “urban” part of town, population 1,100, it’s common for families to welcome unhoused relatives into the small cinderblock homes they lease from the federal government. Most of the housing is old and in need of repair and the occupants, usually upwards of a dozen, often share one vehicle. Although the homes have plumbing and utilities, it’s a struggle to put food on the table.

But there is a beacon of light. The locals call it “the jewel of the desert” – St. Mary Mission in Tohatchi, the church built by the Franciscan friars in 1920. For more than a century, friars – along with religious sisters, as well as volunteers and donors from around the country – have been a source of support, compassion and care in the midst of poverty and struggle.

“A big part of their daily work is getting the supplies they need to survive and make it to the next day. The Navajo are a resilient people. They are accustomed to adversity and finding ways to

St. Mary Mission, the parish church that has served the Navajo Nation in Tohatchi, New Mexico, since 1920.

deal with the many challenges they face. But things would be more difficult if the Franciscans weren’t here,” said Dale Jamison, OFM, pastor of St. Mary Mission since December 2012.

Members of the Navajo community who are parishioners of St. Mary Mission receive Communion during Sunday Mass.

“We are trying to make things a little easier for them. We’re doing what St. Francis did – living among and serving people on the margins. This is the ministry of St. Teresa of Calcutta – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and counseling the distraught,” added Dale, who serves as director of the Office of Native American Ministry for the Diocese of Gallup.

The centerpiece of this service is the Mission Food Pantry, Sr. Jean’s Clothes Closet, and other supportive outreach 

ministries. Franciscan Sisters Marlene Kochert, OSF, and Miriam Kaeser, OSF, who coordinate the weekday operations of the food and clothing programs, often open the pantry after Sunday Mass. They say the supplemental food assistance helps families fill their children’s dinner plates. Volunteers stock pantry shelves with the goods they purchase on a weekly trip to a regional food distribution center in Gallup. The Mission provides canned fruit and vegetables, tuna, soup, rice, pasta, cereal and other non-perishables, as well as fresh produce, meat and dairy to any Navajo family who comes to the pantry.

In addition to used clothing donations from Mission partners in the Southwest and beyond, parishes in Phoenix, Arizona, and Oakland, California, twice annually truck donations of new blankets, bedsheets, coats, sweatshirts, and other seasonal clothing to the thrift shop. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, donations of food, clothing and other necessities pour into the parish, due largely to Dale’s mission appeals at parishes in the region and the efforts of the Franciscan nuns.

While caring for the material needs of the Navajo Nation is an important part of Franciscan ministry, Dale says the friars

High school students attend Mass in the Mission’s hogan, the traditional Navajo octagonal-shaped, one-room structure, during their volunteer week of immersion in Navajo culture and mission life.

keep in their sights the principal reason for their presence: the sacramental nourishment of the faithful.

St. Mary Mission parishioners will participate in the Way of the Cross during Holy Week later this month as they did last year, shown in this photo.

“The Navajo are steadfast in their Native American culture and spirituality – and for those who are Catholic, they are very devout in their faith. They infuse their Navajo culture and spirituality into their Catholic identity, and vice versa. They are sustained by both. They desire the beautiful, sacred celebration of the Sunday Liturgy in church – with singing and incense!” said Dale, who previously spent 39 years in Native American ministry with the Pueblos in the Southwest.

The friars are culturally sensitive in the support and worship they bring to the Navajo Nation – one example, weekday 

Masses are celebrated in the Mission’s hogan chapel. All Navajo, even those living in trailers and government housing, have a separate hogan for religious and spiritual ceremonies.

St. Mary Mission has two satellite churches – St. Anthony of Padua in Naschitti and St. Joseph the Worker in Coyote Canyon, both about 20 miles from Tohatchi. A Legion of Mary ministry visits elderly and homebound, and the parish provides up to $2,000 in tuition assistance for children attending area Catholic schools.

The 40-acre Mission compound houses the church, friary, hogan chapel, food pantry, thrift shop, a convent, three trailer homes and other structures, including motel hogans – where groups of high school and college 

College students unload tools from a pick-up truck to perform outdoor maintenance around the church grounds as part of their volunteer week of experiencing Navajo culture and mission life.

students lodge during a volunteer week of immersion in Navajo culture and mission life. They perform outdoor maintenance at the churches, attend Mass at the hogan chapel and cultural presentations, and 

Parishioners from a parish in Phoenix posed for this photo with Dale Jamison, OFM (center right, back row) when they delivered food, clothing and household items for Navajo in need.

experience traditions like shearing sheep and making frybread, a culinary specialty served with mutton and beans at wedding and anniversary banquets and funeral receptions.

St. Mary Mission’s centennial event was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the Navajo and friars did what they always do – they met the challenge and held a glorious celebration last year to usher in the next century.

Photos courtesy of Dale Jamison, OFM, and St. Mary Mission Facebook.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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