Navajo People, Catholic Pride
In time for the March 3 feast of St. Katharine Drexel, a visit to Tekakwitha Navajo Mission in Houck, Ariz., which she co-founded. By Emily Ortega.
My family and I drove up just in time for the beginning of Mass on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: New Year’s Day.
Father was crossing from his residence to enter the church, his golden vestments glittering under the bright Arizona sun and fluttering in the harsh desert wind. The northern part of the Grand Canyon State enjoys little of the moderate winter climate that its southern cities own.
The small, stone church we were entering, along with the school building behind it, comprise the Tekakwitha Mission. Formally dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, and locally known simply as “Houck Church,” the tiny “complex” was founded in the late 1800s as an outreach to the Navajo of these parts. It’s now a parish of the Diocese of Gallup, N.M.
The mission’s namesake, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, is, of course, the first American Indian the Church has beatified (so far).
Houck (population: 1,087) is about halfway between Gallup and Petrified Forest National Park. The church building itself is built up the hill from the ruins of some Indian dwellings that are probably about 800 years old.
The ruins, which were once adobe huts, lie just off the road winding up to the church. It’s impossible to approach the mission without noticing them. Their presence reminds the visitor to pray for our predecessors on this continent who were not blessed with the grace of the Christian faith — and to offer thanksgiving for our knowledge of Christ and his Church.
The proximity of the mission to the ruins is very likely intentional, as the earliest Franciscan missionaries to the Americas commonly chose ancient ceremonial sites for their churches.
The church interior, while obviously Catholic in structure and statuary, also proudly exhibits the culture of the primarily Navajo congregation it serves.
The statue of Our Lady to the left of the altar portrays a familiar representation of the Ascension, but the Virgin is painted with the darker skin tones and jet-black hair common to most of the parishioners. A small row of pamphlets just inside the door includes some “Indians for Life” brochures. A sheaf of prayer-intention forms is preserved from the gusty winds by a chunk of petrified wood, which is as abundant as any other rock in this part of the country.
Meanwhile the simple yet bright stained-glass windows portray the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, and a few scriptural passages, with one window commemorating the “Navajo Indian Mission.” The cloth covering the table for the offertory gifts is a lovely wool weaving of geometric, Navajo design.
A small shrine to Bl. Kateri is situated against the back wall. Next to this hangs an icon of St. Katharine Drexel, whose feast is celebrated March 3. She lived in the early 20th century and dedicated her life to serving the poor, primarily American Indians and African Americans. In carrying out her work, she co-founded this mission.
Apostle to the Navajo
Mass began with the sign of the cross in the Navajo language. Afterward, the pastor, Franciscan Father Berard Doerger, admitted that those words are really all he knows of the language. However, his predecessor spoke Navajo fluently. The congregation served by the pastor and Franciscan Brother Mike, whose cowboy boots peek out from under his brown robe, is still about 90% Navajo.
This mission began around 1900 when Franciscan Father Anselm Weber came to the area. At that time, it was not part of the Navajo Reservation, though their people had inhabited the land for several centuries. Father Weber worked to help the people living here gain legal title to their lands before they lost that possibility to the railroads and homesteading settlers from the East.
At the same time, he taught Christianity and provided the sacraments.
For this work, Father Weber is locally known as the “Apostle to the Navajo.” After years of providing religious instruction and sacraments in the homes of his flock, he received a donation of five acres on which to build a church.
In 1927, with funds from St. Katharine Drexel through the Marquette League, a church was finally built. Several years later, a large two-story building housing a rectory, convent and school was built behind the church. St. Katharine sent a group of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order she had founded, to run the school. After serving the local children for more than 30 years, the school closed in 1964. Some of the schoolrooms are still used for religious education.
After Mass, we wandered the grounds of the church a bit. A log hogan, the six-sided, traditional Navajo dwelling, stands about 100 yards distant from the main church building. It was built in the 1980s by the Franciscans as a hermitage, as the priests and brothers desired time in solitary prayer. Today it is now used only rarely.
Next to this little building, rows of simple, nameless, cement crosses bear witness to the generations of parishioners who have worshipped here. The remote, peaceful cemetery seems to be a part of the austere desert landscape. It calls to mind the time spent by Jesus praying, being tempted and finally summoning his strength in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).
My husband and I wandered through the cemetery in silence, trying to teach our small children to step gently and avoid walking on the graves. We hurried them away from a hole that, we thought, might be the entrance to a coyote den.
A little farther on, I looked down to see a bit of rock redder than most near my foot. I picked it up and, noticing several black stripes crossing the deep red base, realized I was holding a fragment of a very old Indian pot.
Looking to the mission church under the clear blue sky while holding the tiny shard of old pottery in my hand, I thanked God for this mission — which serves the souls who come to it and prays for those who never were able to.
Emily Ortega writes from
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
St. John the Evangelist Church
P.O. Box 48
Houck, AZ 86506
Planning Your Visit
Daily Mass is celebrated Monday through Saturday at 8 a.m. Sunday Mass is at 10 a.m. Confessions are heard before Mass.
- March 2-8, 2008