Geronimo’s People at Prayer

It was on a recent drive through the Sacramento Mountains — my two younger children, a friend of mine and her daughter in tow — that my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of an old church just off the highway.

We were inside the boundaries of the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

Intrigued, I made a U-turn and took our little group on a providential detour to St. Joseph Apache Mission Catholic Church.

When we drove up the gravel road, we noticed scaffolding around the Romanesque church and wondered if we could enter. Our curiosity propelled us up the steps of the stone structure, lovely in its simple design but obviously in need of repair. We pushed the heavy wooden doors open to reveal a sanctuary resonant with a happy combination of Catholic faith and Apache culture. 

In 1916, the young Franciscan Father Albert Braun arrived at St. Joseph Apache Mission and discovered need of a new church to replace the existing adobe structure. Before he could begin construction, he was called away to serve as a chaplain in the Army. World War I was raging.

After the war, the friar returned to the mission and, with the help of parishioners, began to build a church. They laid the cornerstone in 1920. Father Braun’s vision was of a church as grand as the European landmarks. He wanted to dedicate it to veterans who had given their lives in the “War to End All Wars.”

Work recommenced in 1927, progressing in fits and starts through the ensuing years. During World War II, Father Braun was called away once again to serve as an Army chaplain. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war in the Philippines for 3½ years before returning once more to his beloved St. Joseph’s. He set his mind to completing his construction project.

St. Joseph’s was dedicated on July 4, 1939. (For a brief but detailed biography of the fascinating Father Braun, go to on the Internet.)

The mission church is designed in the shape of a cross. It features a bell tower rising 103 feet into the sky, a sturdy stone façade and a tiled roof. True to Franciscan form, all materials were gathered locally; the stone was quarried just four miles away.

We entered in silence, as we do in any church. As our eyes focused forward to the sanctuary, they were quickly drawn toward light spilling in from windows encircling the stone altar. Directly behind the altar, an intriguing folk icon depicts Christ as something of an Apache brave.

Jesus the Brave

The icon, we learned, was created by Albuquerque artist Robert Lentz. Dressed in Apache garments, Our Lord raises a wounded left hand in a greeting of peace. An eagle soars in the sky behind him.

Simple wooden pews, another Franciscan touch, line both sides of the bricked center isle. Alcoves dot the side aisles with small shrines and candle racks. A statue of the Blessed Mother with Apache feathers draped from her waist is encased in glass on one side of the church.

Small Stations of the Cross, brought from the Philippines, adorn the walls.

The back wall of the church tells the story, in paintings, of traditional Apache ceremonies. Images hang of Apache leaders, including an unforgettable portrait of one of its most respected chiefs, Geronimo.

There is something deeply moving to briefly touch on the past of an ancient people, and then have an opportunity to feel connected to their history. After all, we share the same faith today. At times I felt almost as if I were intruding in someone else’s private space — and yet I felt closer to God that day than I had in a long time. It came to me very clearly what it means that we are all created in his image and likeness.

Handcrafted Faith

A little down the road from the church is a long metal building that houses the rectory, a kitchen, a meeting hall and a gift store of beautiful handmade items lovingly crafted by the Apache people.

The pastor spoke to us about the mission and the ongoing work to repair and save the structure, as well as the need for funding to continue the work and keep the sanctuary safe for the parishioners. He showed us a photo album of their Christmas décor. It was lovely and moving.

From the store I purchased some prayer books and a beaded turquoise crucifix in honor of my youngest son’s first Communion. I figured that, in years to come, it would jog his memory of this small but very special pilgrimage. The parishioners design and make crucifixes, crosses, rosary beads and Apache artwork, and much of it is sold in the gift shop.

St. Joseph Apache Mission is part of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., one of the poorest dioceses in the United States. It is an active parish of 385 families, and the church is in great need of repair.

As an operating church, it is not eligible for federal, state or tribal funding. Some grants have been received, but the mission depends on contributions from individuals who, like our little group, stop by for prayer and sightseeing. 

I admit that, although I was educated in the communications arts, I often have trouble being still and listening to God. Visiting St. Joseph Apache Mission allowed me a time to step back and do just that. In the bargain I also got the chance to learn about another culture that is as thoroughly Catholic as my own.

The people of St. Joseph Apache Mission make up one hard-working, deeply faithful parish. You see this in their loving care and ongoing preservation work of the mission, their church. Surely St. Joseph himself, patron of the universal Church, is well pleased with them.

Zeta Angelich writes from

Austin, Texas.


Planning Your Visit

Weekday Mass is celebrated Tuesday through Friday at noon. Sunday Mass is at 10:30 a.m. For more information, call the parish office at (505) 464-4473 or visit

Getting There

The mission is about a two-hour drive from Roswell, N.M. It’s about 2½ hours from El Paso, Texas, and four from Albuquerque. For directions, call the parish office at (505) 464-4473 or visit