St. Joseph Church in Keams Canyon is a testament to over 300 years of Catholic history. Although the parish itself does not date back quite that long, the people of the Hopi tribe, who make their home in the area around the small Arizona town, first encountered Catholicism when it was brought to the area by Franciscans. The latest testament to the faith in Keams Canyon is a monument to a destroyed village called Awatovi, and the Hopi people who once lived and died there.
“The village of Awatovi, unlike other pueblos before the Pueblo Uprising who may have been influenced by the presence of Spanish soldiers to convert, freely chose to accept the Catholic faith after the miraculous healing of a blind boy in the name of Christ,” said Fr. Clayton Kilburn, the pastor of St. Joseph Church.
In either 1700 or 1701, the inhabitants of neighboring villages, upon learning of the conversion, killed many of the people in Awatovi and destroyed the village. To this day, only a few small ruins mark the spot where it once stood.
“My interest in a monument at Awatovi was sparked after my first visit to Awatovi shortly after my arrival at St. Joseph Mission in 1996,” said Fr. Kilburn. “It did not seem respectful for these possibly 800 Catholic martyrs to not be remembered in some way.”
He expressed hope that by building a monument, the martyrs will be remembered for their witness to Christ, and that forgiveness and understanding can be fully realized between all peoples in the area – Hopi and non-Hopi, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Before starting the process, Fr. Kilburn wanted to seek permission from all parties before going ahead with the project.
“I came up with an initial design for the monument and presented the idea to the parishioners of St. Joseph. They approved both the design and the idea,” said Fr. Kilburn. “I then presented the idea to Bishop James Wall, who gave me permission to pursue the idea, which I said would include informing the Hopi people of the idea.”
Next, Fr. Kilburn wished for the permission of the Hopi tribe – both Catholic and non-Catholic.
“I did not want to erect a monument without first consulting the Hopi people. To do this I wrote an open letter to the Hopi people which I delivered personally to individual village leaders (Chiefs or Governors). I read it with them to explain that the parish wanted to erect a monument to those Catholics who had died over 300 years ago without being given a respectful ceremony. I also explained that the monument would not judge what happened but would contain a perpetual prayer for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect for all human life, and for world peace and harmony. A design for the monument was also included for them to see. The individual leaders received me respectfully and no objections were expressed. The leaders most closely related to the land where the Church is located even said they would try to attend the ceremony if there were no other schedule conflicts.”
In his homily at the dedication Mass, Bishop James Wall expressed his sorrow over the tragedies of the time, while also calling for the Hopi martyrs to be honored as true models of the Catholic faith.
“I know that I have been a part of a Church where people, at time, have done things in the name of the Church that were never right or permissible. It caused a lot of pain, and hardship, and in some cases, bloodshed, and I am truly sorry for that. I want to be about a Church that represents Jesus Christ, who is about peace, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.
“We’ve come together to mark a historic occasion, by blessing a beautiful memorial to the Awatovi martyrs, who were martyred for the sake of their faith. And we do so by also asking for their prayers – we trust that they are forever in Heaven around the throne of God. We ask them to intercede for us, intercede on behalf of their people, the Hopi people – both Catholic and non-Catholic; to intercede on behalf of the Native American peoples, Catholic and non-Catholic; and we ask them to intercede on behalf of all peoples, those Catholic and those non-Catholic; and to pray for peace, healing, and reconciliation.”
View Bishop Wall’s Homily From the Mass below:
One parishioner, Garret Silversmith, has been attending Mass at Keams Canyon for about ten years with his wife and family. Since the beginning, they’ve known Fr. Kilburn, and were even married by him. According to Silversmith, Keams Canyon has people from many different backgrounds, whether Hopi, Navajo, or Caucasian, and that the memorial will help to promote harmony between all cultures.
“It’s been awhile, – just like Father said at Mass, 300 years – and a lot of remorse and not enough forgiveness,” Silversmith said. “But I think the Memorial is a big, positive step toward that reconciliation process that Bishop Wall said so well this morning. And I think more and more as the word is spread, the Hopi people will embrace it.”
Roy Youvella, another parishioner, explained that as both a Catholic and a member of the Hopi tribe, the Mass for the installation of the memorial marks an important occasion.
“It was good,” Youvella said. “It remembers those who, because of their Catholic faith, lost their lives.”
After the Mass and the blessing of the Memorial, the parishioners, their pastor, and the bishop all gathered in the parish hall for a Thanksgiving meal. About half the parishioners are Navajo, and half are Hopi, but in during the meal it was evident that the people of Keams Canyon are true neighbors. In this part of Arizona, their shared love of Christ and the Catholic Church brings them together in peace, 300 years later.