History of St. Michael Indian School by Martin Link
Photos Courtesy of St. Michael School and Gallup Diocesan Archives

Prologue – Katharine Drexel

The Drexels of Philadelphia were a family of power, privilege and wealth. Francis Drexel, along with his two brothers, shared ownership of an international banking empire that included a partnership with J.P. Morgan and other well-established financiers.

Francis and his wife Hannah became proud parents of their second daughter, Katharine, on November 26, 1858, but tragically, complications set in, and Hannah died four weeks later.

Two years later, Francis married Emma Bouvier, a member of another prestigious Philadelphia family, and soon there was a third daughter – Louise. Emma accepted both Elizabeth and Katharine as her own, and was seen to be a loving, wise mother, devoted to her husband, her children, her faith, and her favorite charities.

In 1880 Emma became quite ill, and for three years required almost constant attention before dying on January 29, 1883. Nursing Emma during her long illness only sharpened Katharine’s already clear perspective on life. None of the vast Drexel fortune, she realized, could relieve Emma’s pain or prevent her death.

And then, scarcely two years later, while reading a book one Sunday afternoon in February, 1885, Francis slumped forward and died.

Each of the three daughters, Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise, received large inheritances, and it didn’t take long for hopeful petitioners to start knocking on their doors.

In April, 1885, less than two months after her father’s death, Katharine was visited by the Benedictine Bishop Martin Marty and Fr. Joseph Stephan, director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, who requested that she provide financial help for their several Indian-related projects.

In January, 1887, the three sisters travelled to Rome and were granted two private audiences with Pope Leo XIII. Katharine begged the Holy Father to send more missionaries to the Indians of western America. To which the Pope replied, “Why, my child, don’t you yourself become a missionary?”

By September the Drexel sisters were visiting Indian missions in the Dakotas. After meeting with the famous Sioux chief, Red Cloud, Katharine became convinced that the best way she could serve the Indian people was to establish a religious order with that purpose as its primary function.

But by church tradition, before she could start a religious order, she would first have to go through the process of becoming a nun herself.

Accordingly, on May 7, 1889 Katharine entered the postulant training program under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. Six months later, on November 7, she became a novice in the Sisters of Mercy.

For the next year and a half she underwent the rigorous training and discipline routines of preparing for a life as a nun. During this time, in addition to her studies, she purchased 60 acres of land in Cornwells Heights (now Bensalem, Pennsylvania) and supervised the construction of a complex of buildings that would serve as the “Motherhouse” for her new order.

It was within this rather hectic period, too, that on September 28, 1890, her beloved sister, Elizabeth (Drexel) Smith, died in childbirth.

So, it must have been a glorious day, on February 12, 1891, when Katharine professed her vows, and became the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Within a month of her profession, she accepted ten novices and three postulants to pioneer her novitiate. By the end of 1891, the community numbered 21 members.

The following years were both busy and exciting, as Mother Katharine, with the help of her sister, Louise (Drexel) Morell, recruited new postulants for her order, purchased land in Virginia, Louisiana and Tennessee for the purpose of constructing schools for Black children, and opened St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

On October 16, 1895, Monsignor Joseph Stephan, still the Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in Washington, D.C., acting as an agent of Mother Katharine, purchased the original homesteads of John Wyant and Joe Wilkin, at a place called La Cienega Amarilla (Ts’ohootso) a few miles west of the Arizona – New Mexico territorial line, and less than a mile south of the Navajo Reservation boundary (at that time). Msgr. Stephan then spent almost two years trying to find an order of priests willing to serve in such an isolated location.

Finally, on September 3, 1897, the Franciscan Province of St. John Baptist (headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio) agreed to provide priests for the Navajo Reservation. But even then, it was over a year before the first contingent of Franciscans were assigned to the mission.

On October 7, 1898, Fr. Juvenal Schnorbus, OFM, Fr. Anselm Weber, OFM, and Bro. Placidus Buerger, OFM arrived at La Cienega and took up residence in a stone building that had originally been constructed for use as a trading post.

First missionaries to the Navajo: Fathers Juvenal and Anselm with Brother Placid (standing).

First missionaries to the Navajo: Fathers Juvenal and Anselm with Brother Placid (standing).

The way was now open for Mother Katharine to initiate plans for a school which would primarily serve Navajo children.

Arrangements were made for Mother Katharine’s first visit to La Cienega and a chance to meet with Navajo elders. Fr. Anselm was successful in contacting several respected Navajo elders, including Tall Silversmith who was bluntly opposed to any form of Anglo-American education. As arranged, the Navajos, including Chee Dodge, Charley Mitchell, Braided Hair and Tall Silversmith, arrived at La Cienega and met with Mother Katharine on November 2, 1900. The first speaker was Tall Silversmith, who minced no words in expressing his opposition to the American’s methods of education. However, he was followed by Charley Mitchell and several others, who had previously visited St. Catherine Indian School, and they all expressed optimism, and the hope that Mother Katharine’s school would be a great help to the Navajos toward improving their living conditions. Mother Katharine then addressed the group, assuring them of her intentions, and answering many of their questions and objections. Before their departure, the headmen shook hands, and offered Mother Katharine and Fr. Anselm their support of the school.

Mother Katharine then selected a site for the school on top of a small mesa about 100 yards southeast of the friar’s mission.

Several months later, Mother Katharine authorized Fr. Anselm to purchase an additional 40 acres from Samuel E. Day, and have the property surveyed.

On her second visit to La Cienega (by now named St. Michael Indian Mission), in early November, 1901, Mother Katharine relocated the proposed site of the school about a half-mile east of the mission, on the land acquired from the Day family. She also awarded the contract to build the school to James H. Owen of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who had just completed building the government Indian School at Keams Canyon.

With clear legal title to the land, and all the designs and specifications of the school building worked out, construction of the facilities began on March 1, 1902.

The stone blocks for St. Michael Indian School were quarried nearby and taken by wheelbarrow to the building site.

The stone blocks for St. Michael Indian School were quarried nearby and taken by wheelbarrow to the building site.

Up to this time the friars had been receiving all their mail at Ft. Defiance, some eight miles away. That spring, Fr. Anselm made application for a post oflice to be established at the mission. The application was approved, and John Walker was named to the position of postmaster. The first delivery of mail took place on September 1, 1902. From that date La Cienega became officially known as St. Michaels, Arizona Territory.

Meanwhile, work at both the stone quarry and the construction site continued at a steady pace. Mother Katharine, accompanied by Sister Ignatius and Mr. Didier, the carpenter at St. Catherine’s School, inspected the construction work at St. Michaels on May 29 – June 1, and were generally satisfied with the progress of the project. The three of them made a subsequent inspection tour on September 13-15, staying in the vacated Day home.

On this visit, Mother Katharine fixed October 19 as the date for the Sisters’ arrival at their convent quarters, with an anticipated opening of the school on December 3, the feast of St. Francis Xavier.

Chapter I – The Grand Tour

 It was a crisp, bright fall afternoon as the train pulled out of the Philadelphia station and headed west. Soon, the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, a colorful rhapsody of red, yellow and brown, gave way to the greens of the Ohio Valley

For the four nuns on board, it would be years before they would again view the fall colors of their familiar Pennsylvania. It was October 15, 1902, and the Mother Superior of the new school at St. Michael, Sr. Mary Evangelist, S.B.S., was accompanied by three sisters assigned to the mission school of St. Catherine, in Santa Fe, in the Territory of New Mexico.

old-photo

Three days later the train arrived at Lamy Station, just south of Santa Fe, and the three sisters disembarked for the short buggy ride to St. Catherine’s. Replacing them for the rest of the journey to Gallup were Mother Katharine Drexel, Sr. Mary Angela and Sr. Mary Agatha.

They arrived in Gallup early Sunday morning, October 19, and were met by Fr. Berard Haile who had just recently been assigned to the Franciscan Mission at St. Michaels. After Mass and breakfast, the four nuns squeezed aboard a two-seater spring wagon and began the 30-mile trip to the site of their new school, arriving about 6:00 PM.

Several rooms on the ground floor of the unfinished building had been prepared for the sisters, who then spent the next day (October 20, their first full day at St. Michael School) washing windows and hanging curtains.

On the evening of October 22, two more sisters arrived, along with Mother Katharine’s 19-year-old niece, Josephine Drexel. Four additional sisters from the Motherhouse arrived on the 24th, making a group total of ten (plus one niece).

While Mother Katharine and most of the sisters continued to put the finishing touches on the completed rooms, Fr. Anselm offered to take Miss Josephine, accompanied by one of the sisters, on a tour of part of the Navajo Reservation.

Accordingly, Fr. Anselm, Frank Walker, the mission interpreter, Sr. Agatha, and Miss Josephine set out early on the morning of Saturday, October 25, with the plan to arrive at Don Lorenzo Hubbell’s Trading Post in Ganado in time for lunch.

Somewhere just past the summit, on the narrow, rutted dirt road, one of the horses went lame, which slowed their progress considerably.

It was after 6:00 PM, just in time for dinner, when the party finally arrived at the Hubbell home. That evening Frank Walker took the tired team of horses back to St. Michaels and, on Sunday afternoon, returned to Ganado with a fresh team. Meanwhile, Sr. Agatha and Miss Josephine visited several nearby Navajo hogans. Sr. Agatha recorded in her journal, “We watched the women making blankets, and pleased some of them very much by making some clumsy efforts to weave.”

On Monday morning, with the fresh team of horses, the four of them left the Hubbell Trading Post for the 30-mile journey to Chinle and the Samuel Day Trading Post (the present-day Thunderbird Ranch). After a lunch stop near Nazlini, the party continued through Beautiful Valley, arriving at the Day store and home around 4:30 p.m.

During the next several days, while Fr. Anselm met with local Navajo leaders regarding the establishment of a mission at Chinle, the Days escorted Sr. Agatha and Miss Josephine throughout Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, where they even climbed up into Mummy Cave.

On Friday, October 31, the party returned to the Hubbell Trading Post, but again, one of the horses became very sick with the colic.

The following morning, after breakfast and Mass (it was the Feast of All Saints) the group began the final leg of their return journey. The sick horse had been left behind, and Hubbell had loaned them one of his favorite riding horses, “Prince” with the admonition, “He’s a saddle horse, and doesn’t work too well in a harness.”

Late that afternoon, when the party was about 16 miles out of Ganado (and 14 miles yet to St. Michaels) Prince showed signs of balkiness. Frank Walker tried to walk alongside of him, but that didn’t help either.

Finally, Prince came to a decided standstill, and no amount of urging or coaxing would change his mind.

Fr. Anselm then decided to ride the other horse to St. Michaels and fetch a new team. Now, as dusk settled on this early November evening, Walker decided to ride Prince (bareback) around the area to see if a local Navajo might be willing to loan them a team of horses.

So, somewhere half-way between Ganado and St. Michaels, on a cool, but dark November evening, a nun and a teen-age girl from Philadelphia sat on a blanket, next to a fire and a wagon, all alone! After finding, and sharing a box of chocolates, the two of them spent the evening writing letters, and Sr. Agatha brought her journal up-to-date.

Eventually, Walker returned with a Navajo and his horses, which were in very poor looking shape, and managed to pull the wagon only a mile or two up the mountain. An hour later, John Osborne, from the mission, arrived with a team of horses. The Navajo was not only paid for his efforts, but was also paid to return Prince to Mr. Hubbell.

After a wild, bouncy ride, the party arrived at St. Michael shortly before midnight. Mother Katharine had a good, warm supper ready for them.

The next morning, the Feast of All Souls, Mother Katharine and her niece Josephine Drexel departed St. Michael, and were taken to the train station in Gallup for the long trip back to Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania.

Mother Katharine had a number of other half-completed projects that now demanded her attention, but Miss Josephine had some really great tales to tell her family about her experiences “out West.”

Chapter II – Getting Down to Business

“1902 — No one but Our Lord knows how much the children and our sisters went through that first winter. The cold was intense, being at times twenty degrees below zero. Old residents said they had not had a winter like it in twenty years. Fires were not good in any part of the house, as the chimneys would not draw. To make a fire was the signal to have the rooms filled with smoke. In the morning, coming down to the chapel (which was still in the lower part of the house) for Mass from the dormitories, the children would cry from the cold… The little ones would try to get near the stove.” — SMIS Annals

Under the capable leadership of Mother Superior Mary Evangelist, the small but dedicated community of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament began to prepare the various rooms as soon as the workmen would finish up on a section of the massive three-story building. Once the roof was completed, interior walls still needed to be constructed and plastered, floors needed to be finished and cabinets installed.

By mid-November, six rooms on the lower floor were occupied by the nuns on a temporary basis until the second-floor convent could be completed.

Several times a week, large freight wagons would deliver a multitude of equipment and furnishings for the kitchen, bakery, pantries and store-rooms, the dining hall, and the laundry room.

Their first day of leisure was Thanksgiving Day. After Mass and a dinner fit for the occasion, the nuns were sitting in their community room, stuffing pillows for the children’s use, when word came that some Navajos had arrived with children for the school.

This came as a bit of a surprise, since, at Mother Katharine’s direction, word had been spread that the school would officially open on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier – December 3.

When they answered the door they found the famous old silversmith, Peshlakai, and members of his family, with three small girls, one almost a baby, the other two about 10 or 12 years of age. The baby, who was very weak and suffering from pneumonia, was named Catharine Tegawitha (she died at St. Michael in January, 1903). The older two girls were named Mary and Margaret (Peshlakai).

The first students had arrived.

“There were two first grades, a second and a third, each meeting for one—half day. The other half day was given to industrial training including plain and fancy sewing, Navajo weaving, baking bread, carpentry, mending shoes, farm work, cooking and cleaning.”  – from a 1904 letter of Mother Evangelist

“When two visiting Sisters (Mother Mercedes and Sister Vincent) reached St. Michael’s they found Mother Evangelist and the other Sisters almost worn out with night and day nursing. Many pupils were ill with what seemed to be a low-grade pneumonia. A week before the Sisters reached there, five children had died, and during the three days of their visit four more rapidly followed. (Modern medicine was unheard of)” — 1904 SBS Anna

Back in mid-October, Fr. Anselm, Frank Walker and Charley Mitchell had visited a number of Navajo communities and trading posts throughout Northwestern New Mexico to discuss the enrollment of Navajo youngsters into St. Michael. Most of the discussions had brought positive responses. There was a bit of historic irony in this trip.

Exactly ten years earlier, in the fall of 1892, the Navajo Agent Dana Shipley had gone into the same area of the Lukachukai/Carrizo Mountains, accompanied by a contingent of Navajo police, and demanded that the local families send at least 25 children to the boarding school at Ft. Defiance. The Navajos resented this forceful tactic, and soon over fifty angry, mounted warriors, under the leadership of Black Horse, had Shipley and his contingent besieged inside the Round Rock Trading Post. One of the Indian police managed to mount his horse and escape, and 25 miles later, found a cavalry patrol near Tsaile.

Lt. Brown and his troopers rode into Round Rock early the next morning and negotiated with Black Horse for the release of Agent Shipley. Shipley had to promise never to use force again while soliciting pupils for the government school.

Now, in 1902, this same Black Horse stood at the side of Fr. Anselm, and encouraged his people from the Red Rock Valley area to send their children to St. Michael.

Right after Thanksgiving, Fr. Anselm and Frank Walker again headed north toward Red Rock Valley. This time they rode in a big farm wagon which had been purchased by Mother Katharine for the school’s use. The wagon was loaded with hay, blankets and provisions for the pupils they hoped to get for the school.

Cold weather and snow hampered their progress, but they arrived at Red Rock on Nov. 28, where over fifty Navajos and their children, had already gathered. Two sheep were butchered, and after dinner Fr. Anselm, again with the support of Black Horse, explained the purpose of the new school: moral, religious and industrial training that would develop worthy and brave young men and women for the Navajo people.

Fr. Anselm closed the council with a Mass offered for God’s blessing on his quest — and for good weather on the return trip (well, the quest was successful, but the weather was awful!).

The next morning 21 youngsters, wrapped in blankets, rode off in the farm wagon, while a mixed group of 20 adults (mostly parents) followed behind. The weather was extremely cold, but they made it to Joe Wilkin’s store at Sanostee near Bennett Peak where they spent the night. The next day they continued south to the trading post at Two Grey Hills, where Lynn Wetherill kindly put up all 43 people for the night.

“The famous dance came of after the nine days previous religious ceremonies. Indians came from all parts of the reservation. We never had such a crowd of Indians around since the first arrival of children. Two of the Sisters were sent up to the Fathers on business the morning after, and it seemed as if there were Indians everywhere. A most picturesque sight they presented in their gaily-colored blankets and Indian ponies decked out in their bright trappings.” — November, 1905

“Rev. Father Juvenal OFM was made our chaplain, also confessor this year. He accomplished quite a bit of work with the children, teaching them the ‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Glory be to the Father’ in Navajo. The ‘Hail Mary’ is set to music. One of the Sisters taught it to the children, and now they can sing it real nicely.” – Autumn, 1906 Annals

The following day, December 1, proved to be the most grueling portion of the journey. As they ascended the steep, icebound trail over Washington Pass (now known as Narbona Pass) the mules and horses slipped constantly as they dragged the heavy, cumbersome, sliding wagon. While Fr. Anselm prayed, Frank Walker resorted to more choice, mule-skinner invectives. In several places the men roughed up the ice with picks, while the other Navajos carried dirt in their blankets to help with the traction. Up the steepest grades the older children walked while the younger ones rode double saddle behind their elders.

The party had just cleared the pass when a violent snow storm broke. Several hours after dark, 43 wet, cold and hungry people arrived at J.B. Moore’s store in Crystal. After a hot meal, everyone managed to find a space on the trading post floor for a good night’s sleep.

Early the next morning, in spite of the heavy snowfall, the party made good time on the road to Ft. Defiance, and arrived at St. Michael by late afternoon.

The following day, December 3, 1902, on the Feast Day of St. Francis Xavier, the wishes of Mother Katharine Drexel were carried out. St. Michael School was solemnly opened with a High Mass sung by Fr. Berard Haile, OFM, the chaplain.

In attendance were several neighbors, government officials from Ft. Defiance, Fr. Anselm, Fr. Leopold and Bro. Simeon, the 20 Red Rock parents, a handful of construction workers, some Tribal leaders, 24 excited (and probably a little apprehensive as well) students — and nine very tired, but joyful Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.*

*Mother Superior Mary Evangelist
Sister M. Angela
Sister Mary of the Annunciation
Sister M. Agatha
Sister M. Ambrose
Sister M. Gertrude
Sister M. Josephine
Sister M. Inez
Sister M. Theresa

“Father Anselm decided to allow the children to go home earlier this year, as the Indians seem to have plenty to eat. Then they could come back to school in September. July 12th was the date fixed for their departure.” — 1907 Annals

“When I first went out there in 1917 we had no such thing as a laundry. There was one large room with a couple of washtubs. After a Baptism or some holy event took place we had no water at all. We would have to go down to the arroyo to wash the clothes and boil them in a great big pot. In time, they built a laundry, and put in a furnace down in the ground to heat the water. One of the boys had to keep putting coal into the furnace to keep the water hot.” — Mary Ryder’s Memoirs

Chapter III – The Early Years

After a two-year battle with cancer and kidney failure, Fr. Anselm Weber, OFM, died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, 11 March 8, 1921. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, St. Bernard, Ohio. The last 23 years of his life had been devoted to his Navajo mission. Although land acquisitions and extensions to the Navajo Reservation occupied much of his time and energies during his final years, he also devoted much attention to the successful creation and development of the school on the banks of the Cienega Amarilla.

By 1921 the school was almost twenty years old, and its enrollment showed a little over 200 boys and girls. The older boys had formed a marching band that presented concerts in nearby communities such as Ft. Defiance, Ganado, Gallup and Chinle. The curriculum throughout the eight grades stressed the traditional three “Rs,” plus a fourth – Religion.

“A new little Papago scholar walked right into the hearts of his Navajo playmates by standing on his head for two full minutes on the occasion of his first appearance at recreation here!” — from a 1914 letter of Sister Loyola

The Industrial Arts program served two functions. Boys were taught agriculture and animal husbandry, carpentry, stone masonry, and blacksmithing, while the girls learned how to sew and weave, cook, and all other aspects of “home economics.” Although a certain amount of training and instruction did take place, “Industrial Arts” was just an euphemism for “on-the-job training” and provided the much-needed labor necessary to keep the school operating.

While the girls spent time weaving (using the traditional Navajo method), sewing and mending clothing, sheets and pillow cases, doing the laundry, and assisting with the preparation of meals, the boys often worked in the nearby vegetable fields, took care of the livestock, milked the cows and gathered the eggs, and helped the maintenance crew repair bedsteads, chairs, tables, window sashes, or even wagon wheels. A lot of their time was spent keeping the fire going in the newly-completed boiler plant that provided warm air for the entire complex of buildings. It has also been noted that some of the Navajo boys baked better bread than the girls.

Enrollment grew steadily since that first class of 1902-03. (Eventually 50 pupils had enrolled in the school that first year.) In subsequent years efforts were made to recruit students from a wider area, including Chinle, Lukachukai, Ganado, Tsaile and Tohatchi. In 1912, Mother Katharine gave permission for Pueblo students from Acoma and Laguna to attend St. Michael. A few years later Papago (Tohono O’odham) boys began to show up on the rolls. Before the addition of the high school, enrollment pretty well leveled off at 300 students.

By 1910 the St. Michael boys were playing football with the teams from the Ft. Defiance Boarding School and Crownpoint (Pueblo Bonito) Boarding School. St. Michael School also fielded a boys’ baseball team and both boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.

The seriousness which everyone took in sporting events is captured in a diary entry written by Mother Josephine in August, 1920. She, and the rest of the faculty and students were watching a baseball game between the Ft. Defiance employees and those of St. Michael on the ball field adjacent to the school building.

As the score went back and forth in a highly contested game, both Sr. Marie Anthony and Sr. Honora were praying and praying for the success of St. Michael. Finally, when it looked like the Fort team was winning, the two sisters got up, excused themselves, and headed for the Chapel. Sr. Honora was heard to say, “This is going to require some very serious praying.” Apparently it worked. The St. Michael team won the game!

“So many of our little ones had to go home for a few weeks during the lambing season that Father Anselm told me he thinks it would be best fior us next year to do as Fort Defiance Government School does, suspend school for 2 weeks, and let all go at the one time. The little lambs require so much care and the Indian parents need their children’s help.” — From 1910 letter of Sister Josephine

Another event that occurred several times during each school year was the conferring of the Sacrament of Baptism, followed by First Communion. Fr. Anselm always taught the religious classes in the Navajo language. Conversion to Christianity and Baptism were always a voluntary and consensual decision. Once a pupil desired to be baptized, the parents had to give their approval before the sacrament could be conferred. An additional year of catechism classes were normally required before the student received First Communion.

The sisters always made a big fuss over these events, which always served a visual impression of their  spiritual importance. The girls were all decked out in white dresses and veils and the boys in white shirts and ties. The ceremony always involved a Solemn High Mass, followed by a reception, and, of course, a concert by the school band.

“The addition to the main building at St. Michael’s, with its dormitory for about 25 small boys, a refectory fior small boys, and a large dormitory on the first floor for large boys, is completed. The larger boys deserve great credit for their work on the new building and the new Engine House. They assisted in the carpentry and masonry, and, most of all, in the onerous task of digging away rock for the new Engine House.” — 1917 SBS Annals

“About 10:00 AM Santa Claus arrived and distributed the gifts to the children. Mr. Tafoya made a very jolly Santa. The children enjoyed his pranks so much. After the children’s gifts were exhausted, all the visiting Indians each received a bag of candy. Never had we so many before, over two hundred. Some came on horseback, some walking, and others came in wagons. They continued coming until after 6 PM. Thanks be to God! We had the candy to give, and afford this little happiness to God’s poor.” — from December 27, 1920, letter to Mother Katharine

Sometimes, however, circumstances required immediate attention.

Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart recalled an episode in the summer of 1913. “An old Indian woman, the grandmother of some of our students, got all ready to go to Heaven. She was real sick and wanted to be baptized. She received Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Extreme Unction and Matrimony; now wasn’t she a lucky old soul! And she didn’t die after all – she is still living, and that was about a month ago.”

But not all the happenings and events those first two decades had happy endings.

Living as they were, sisters, students and employees, in such close surroundings, there was always the threat of contagious diseases.

In February, 1911, the school was hit by the measles epidemic that was devastating both the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Within a period of three weeks they treated 58 cases. All the students recovered except two (Paul and Bart) who actually succumbed to bronchial pneumonia.

In March, 1920, Tom, one of the Papago boys who had gone home for some reason, returned to the school very ill. It was the dreaded flu. As soon as the sisters recognized it, they isolated him, but it was too late. One child after another fell victim, and in less than three hours over 80 children had the flu. Several of the sick began to show complications of pneumonia.

April 23, 1926

Reverend and dear Mother,

Well, here I am after my awful experience of yesterday. Two of our children are in a dying condition at their homes. Teresa Whitegoat is one, and little John, also, is from that clan. I asked Mother we could take their relatives from here and go visit them, and as the horses were all working, we had to go on foot, but I tell you, Reverend Mother, my poor feet are paying up for it today. We did not think it was so far until we were halfway there. We came to a creek and such a time as we had to pass it. We went up and down looking fior a footbridge, but not one could be found, so what did we do but take our shoes and stockings off and over we went. You should have seen us holding on to one another. We surely did have a good laugh.

The children were so anxious to get to their sick relatives, we did not like to turn back. We reached Teresa’s place in a short time and she was so happy to see us. But the poor girl is nothing but skin and bones. She has T.B. We had some food with us. We also gave her a Rosary and Sacred Heart badge.

Devotedly yours,
Sister M. Edward”

Fr. Ludger and Fr. Emmanuel came up from the Mission and helped with the nursing of the boys. Mr. Peter Paquette, the Indian Agent, sent over several medical people from the Ft. Defiance hospital. Both Fr. Ludger and one of the sisters developed the disease and were bedridden. For three weeks everybody at St. Michael was quarantined, but all the victims, except Tom, the Papago boy, recovered.

One of the worst natural catastrophes occurred on July 28, 1914. There had been a slight flooding of the Cienega Amarilla onJuly 3, but this did only minimal damage.

However, at the end of July, after two days of torrential downpours, a flash-flood engulfed the entire valley. Some of the maintenance crew and four Navajo students wrestled with the 1,000-lb. Gasoline engine and pump, trying to get the equipment out of the pump-house and up to higher ground as the pump-house (which was built next to the wash) was rapidly being inundated by the rising flood waters. All the gardens were washed away, and as the waters began to flood the barn, the livestock were driven to higher ground. All but two of the pigs were lost, however. All three bridges were destroyed, along with several storage buildings near the pumphouse.

The priests from the Mission came down to render aid, but since all the bridges were out, could do nothing but turn around and go back.

The tragedy of the flood, however, involved a Navajo family who lived a short distance up-stream from the Mission. Two of the girls, in an attempt to avoid the floodwaters, tried to cross the wash, and were swept away. On July 30, a couple of days after the flood subsided, the body of the older girl was found near the hogan, but the younger girl’s body (Cecilia) was not found until the next day. The body had floated all the way down the wash to Black Creek. The grieving parents asked the sisters for help, and both bodies were washed, dressed, wrapped in blankets, and placed in simple wood coffins.

It was just before sunset when both girls were buried in a common grave in the school’s cemetery, as the assembled sisters chanted the melancholy strains of De Profundis.

Chapter IV – The Fifties – Expansion and the End of An Era

“The dear little ones get more interesting every day. Baseball and farming claim a great deal of attention just now, but Forty Hours Devotion and May-day processions, together with First Communion and Closing Exercises come in for a goodly share of attention, too.

One evening, four or five of the little lassies were helping carry water. It makes them very sociable and somewhat confidential to work with the flowers. They were too little to do much, but just come along and try to help. Finally one little girl came smiling and said, ‘Sister, I call you my Grandmother.’ I said, ‘Your what?’

Again she repeated, ‘My Grandma.’ Very much amused, I said, ‘Your Grandma, and what is that?’ ‘Why,’ she said, ‘that’s you.’ By this time another got a chance to say her part and she said, ‘But, Sister, I said it first, before her, I said you were my Grandma last September.’ Well, really I was amused and didn’t know whether to feel complimented or otherwise. Later Sister M. Honora assured me that that’s what they call you when they like you, for Grandma with the little ones is the one they love the most.” – 1928, Sister M. Jane Frances

By the time World War II started, St. Michael Indian School was an almost completely self-sufficient community. The beautiful Chapel was finished, complete with additional classrooms above, a large gymnasium was added, along with a power plant that provided heat, electricity and water. A two-story boys’ dormitory was built and additional dormitory space added to the west side of the original structure. The school had its own laundry facilities, kitchen and bakery, carpenter shop, shoe repair and tailor shop, produce farm, dairy cows, stock barn, and a car/ bus maintenance garage.

“Mother, the Chevrolet truck without the body is $780, and by paying cash I can get a reduction of $50, making it $730. The Ford, without the body is $672. If I sell the truck without the body I can get $100 from Father Mathias, but hardly anything now from the Ford Company. They are issuing a new model Ford. Prices are not yet quoted. I would not like to get a Ford of the present make. It will be hard to dispose of when it becomes worn.” — from a 1927 letter to Mother Katharine from Sr. M. Berchmans

“September and school days always bring a stream of wagons from Klagetoh, Cornfields, Tohatchi, far off Lukachukai, and many other points on the Reservation to St. Michaels School. The wagons are filled with children ranging in age from six to twenty. And when the last straggling sheep herder has registered late in October the school has an enrollment of close to three hundred Indians.” — Padres’ Trail, March 1939

The enrollment was about 300 students, the maximum number it could accommodate.

When the war ended, returning Navajo veterans came back with a new attitude toward the concept and importance of getting an education. This drastic change in Navajo priorities had its impact on the entire reservation school system, including St. Michael.

In 1946 a lay-teacher couple, Mr. and Mrs. Giovanni, were hired to develop a ninth-grade curriculum. The following year plans were approved for the proposed high school annex, with construction starting in 1948.

The building was completed in the spring of 1950, just in time for the graduation of the first high school class of four graduates.

Sunday, May 28, 1950, a beautiful clear day, was a “Real Red Letter Day” in the annals of St. Michael. It started at 7:15 AM with a solemn procession of the high school graduates, followed by the eighth grade graduates up the aisle in the Chapel. The school chaplain, Fr. Howard, OFM, said the Mass for the intentions of the graduates. After Mass the graduates had a breakfast in a private room especially arranged for the occasion.

About 10:00 AM Tom Mullarky, the photographer from Gallup, and Mr. Howard Emerson arrived at the school with a car load of ice cream, bananas and a variety of toppings. There was more than enough for everybody.

At 2:00 PM His Excellency Bishop Bernard Espelage arrived. Shortly the procession, now consisting of the four high school graduates, 10 eighth-graders, about 20 priests and 40 resident and visiting sisters, and Bishop Espelage, filed into the Chapel to the music of Ecce Sacerdos. Another 400 guests and parents then tried to squeeze into the remaining pews. After a few prayers, the procession exited the Chapel and formed up in the foyer of the new high school while the Bishop dedicated the building and blessed all the classrooms.

Then it was back to the Chapel, where the Bishop gave a sermon and then presented the graduates with their diplomas. The ceremony ended with a Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

My dear Graduates and Friends:

This is an important day in your lives, and from many points of view, the most important. You have reached the stage, where to a great extent, the future of your lives, your success or failure, will depend entirely upon.yourselves. This far, kind, thoughtful and loving parents, and zealous teachers have helped to shape and mould your characters, and to steer you aright on life’s pathway. Today a large part of that responsibility is shifted to your own.shoulders.

And it is for you to ask yourselves ‘whither are we going‘? Is the work of the past few years to be wasted upon a life of carelessness and indifference? Is the life a) well begun and the mind so soundly and sanely moulded by your zealous teachers to become a useless part of the world’s turmoil? Or are you going out to make the proper use ‘of your equipment and education and become an independent rung upon the ladder of life’s success?.We feel that you have the necessary education to go out into the world and take care of yourselves and make the world a better place to live in.’

You have been blessed with an excellent Catholic education. You have a fair grasp of the principles of your religion. Be true to them. Yes, religion is necessary in every man’s life. We judge a man by what he does and not by what he knows. A learned person, not-withstanding his or her learning may be a very despicable person. Knowledge without religion, or life without the practical application of religious principles is like a double edged sword. You can make good or bad use of what you know or what is entrusted to your care. Religion teaches us to make good use of what we know and of what we have. With your religious training you should endeavor to put religion into your every day life. Try to be faithful to your daily prayers; your morning and evening prayers, prayers before and after meals; faithful and regular attendance at Holy Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day of the year; frequent reception of the sacraments. Do not practice your religion like you wear your Sunday clothes, only on Sundays. As Bishop of the diocese, I often wonder how many Catholics there are in the diocese who are faithful to their morning and evening prayers, how many Catholics never say any prayers before and after meals. By being negligent in these prayers, our Catholic people are forgetting God and perhaps even turning away from Him, and thus being the cause of suffering, misery and turmoil we find in the world today. Yes, God is being ruled out of the scheme of things, and man has been led to believe that he can solve the world’s problems without God and this is the reason for all the anxiety and unrest that we find in the world today.

My dear graduates, as young men and young ladies, you are passing into a world over which hangs dark clouds of confusion and uncertainty. I sympathize with you for having to begin your careers in life under such unfavorable conditions. Yet, I do not pity you, for I know that you have been trained well in this school to take your place in the world. You have received a thorough education in Christian principles which makes you capable and competent for the task before you. I am satisfied that you have been trained to meet this take and feel confident that you will do it well. 

To me it is always a comfort to witness the Graduation exercises ofl a Catholic school, because I can be sure that the graduates of a Catholic school have been trained well in the Christian principles of life. Catholic graduates have been taught their purpose in life, they have been taught to be true and loyal followers of Christ, and consequently they must be true and loyal citizens of their country, and that is what our country needs more today than anything else.

I congratulate you, my dear Graduates, I congratulate your teachers, the good Sisters, who have helped you to reach this day. Be a credit to this school by your daily lives, and never let it be said of you that you have been a discredit and disgrace to the school by any of your actions. I congratulate the parents of the graduates for the sacrifices they have made in sending their children to a Catholic school. I wish you every success in life, my dear graduates. May God bless you and keep you; may He bless your parents and may He especially bless the teachers of this school.

– Graduation speech given by Bishop Espelage, May 1950

That evening, a formal dinner was served the Bishop and eleven priests by students from the junior class. A fitting end to a most exciting and joyous occasion!

Two years later the school was again buzzing with activity. This time it was the celebration of the school’s Golden Jubilee (1902-1952).

By mid-October, 1952, everything was in readiness, including a large wooden platform constructed just outside the main entrance to the high school for the outdoor Mass.

The Jubilee celebration was highlighted by a Solemn Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving. The celebrant was the Most Reverend Bernard Espelage, O.F.M., Bishop of the Diocese of Gallup. The sermon was preached by the Most Reverend James Byrne, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The colorful proces sion included both the Archbishop and Bishop, a number of Franciscans and visiting priests, nuns from several congregations, and the Honor Guard from the Knights of Columbus Assembly in Gallup.

There were over 300 Navajos and visitors attending the Mass. Special guests included Sr. M. Gertrude, one of the original group of nuns, and four of her surviving students from that class of 1902-03 – Luke Shorty, Ursula Blackgoat, Mary Whiteboy and Mary Redlady.

Dinner followed the Mass, and in the afternoon the students presented a play, “Lelawala,” and the Hopi students, with the help of their parents, entertained the Jubilee visitors with a series of Hopi Social dances.

By now, the school was doing quite well, both financially and Scholastically, and on the football field as well. But that was all about to change.

Since she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in 1891, Mother Katharine Drexel had been both hub and cornerstone of her Order’s activities.

Even after her debilitating heart attack, suffered while she was visiting her western schools and missions in the fall of 1935, she continued to attend the needs and aspirations of her far-flung school  network. Confined to the Motherhouse infirmary for 20 years, she bore her illness gracefully, and spent her waking hours in constant prayer.

Although sad, it came as no real surprise when Mother Irenaeus answered the phone on the afternoon of March 3, 1955, and was informed that Mother Katharine Drexel had just passed away. She was 96 years old.

A Philadelphia newspaper wrote: “One of the most remarkable women in the history of America was called home to God yesterday. She belongs so truly to all America, but especially to the poor and forgotten people of the land – our Indians and Negroes. She was indeed a heroine of God.”

Chapter V – Years of Change and Decisions

Although half a world away, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought many profound changes, not only within the universal Catholic Church, but even to the local parish level, including St. Michael Indian School.

For generations, Catholics felt secure in their complex of traditions and rituals, regardless of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds: fish on Friday, Confession on Saturday, either Solemn High Mass or Low Mass (but always in Latin) on Sunday, lenten fasts and ashes, Ember Days, May processions, Forty Hours Devotion, novenas, nuns in black habits, scapulars, CYO basketball games and parish Feast Days.

Very few Catholics foresaw that by 1965 the structures of that secure world would be coming apart.

But even before Vatican II, changes were taking place, both within the network of schools established by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and at St. Michael Indian School itself. However, most of these changes were motivated by financial problems, which just happened to arise at the same time that everyone was making spiritual adjustments to the new policies advocated by Vatican II.

Since the death of Mother Katharine Drexel in 1955, many sources of financial assistance for the schools were no longer accessible.

In 1946, after being able to provide a free education (as well as meals and dormitory facilities) for almost 44 years, the school began to ask for a voluntary tuition fee of $10.00 per student, per semester.

Almost all the changes that were now being made at the school required additional expenditures and, unfortunately, tuition adjustments became a major source of income.

By the mid-fifties the school was receiving its electricity from the rapidly-expanding Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Although the power plant was now reduced to just providing hot water and heat for the school and laundry, the monthly electric bill became a major line item in the budget.

Changes were made in the food services as well. The vegetable gardens were no longer maintained, the dairy cows sold off, and once the hogs and chickens were butchered and they were not replaced. As processed bread became available, even the bakery was reduced to just baking cinnamon rolls for special occasions. By now, all raw food products had to be purchased, and providing 300 meals, three times a day, also became a strain on the budget.

The buildings, too, were a matter of concern. The original buildings, some now sixty years old, needed renovations of their electrical, plumbing and heating systems. Some of the newer buildings, primarily the high school annex, developed major problems such as leaky roofs and faulty heating systems.

Another major on-going expense centered on the purchase, maintenance and up-keep of the cars, vans and school buses that were so vital to the school’s operation.

And there were major changes within the school system itself.

Through the end of World War II, most school classrooms, public as well as private, could get by with one textbook and some visual aids for the teacher. The main exceptions were the chemistry and science classes that required additional materials and equipment.

Now, in the late fifties and early sixties, when electric typewriters replaced manual typewriters, they, too, became obsolete. It was the age of computers, and every classroom had to have them. And, concurrently, the cost of textbooks began to climb – and climb!

Changing times also had its effect on teachers as well. In the late fifties there were five or six lay-teachers within the faculty. By the sixties nearly a fourth of the faculty were not members of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Sr. Alice Patrick taught business courses in the High School. Here she is supervising the work of two students.

Sr. Alice Patrick taught business courses in the High School. Here she is supervising the work of two students.

But perhaps the fastest growing expense was in the area not generally seen by the public – insurance. There was fire and property insurance on the buildings, liability insurance to cover sports-related or other accidents, vehicle insurance, health insurance for the non-Indian students and faculty, and workmen’s compensation, to mention only a few.

And the tuition kept rising and rising…

Finally, some tough but unpopular decisions and changes had to be made. In the spring of 1966 the high school boys dormitory was shut down, which then eliminated most of the high school sports program. The following year the elementary boys dormitory was also closed.

The only boys remaining in the elementary grades were day students. Dormitory facilities continued to be available for girls in the fifth through twelfth grades.

But even these steps were not sufficient to balance the budget and stabilize the tuition fees. Throughout the seventies no new boarders were admitted. In 1981 the last of the girl boarding students graduated, bringing to a close a 79-year old tradition at St. Michael Indian School.

The following year boys were re-admitted to the high school freshman class as day students. This policy continued on an annual basis so that boys could enter the sophomore class in 1983, the junior class in 1984, and the senior class in 1985.

Meanwhile, in January, 1973 a St. Michael Parent Advisory Council was established. Its primary function was to assist in the formation of policies regarding personnel, curriculum, federal programs and other important administrative duties. It also served as a valuable liaison between the school, parents and the community.

The first members of the Advisory Council were Dr. Samuel Billison, president; Joe Jaramillo, vice president; Mrs. Lea Zorn, secretary-treasurer; and board members Miss Laurine Ruleau, Ben McCurtain, Ike Peacock, Edwardo Chavez and Mrs. Earlene Williams. Sister Margaret O’Donnell, principal of the high school, was the executive officer of the board.

Relieved of the financial burden and responsibilities of a boarding and meal program, and with the support now, of a community-based Advisory Board, the school could look forward to a brighter and more positive future.

Chapter VI – Continuing the Dream

A new direction for the school was laid out in 1993 when the St. Michael Indian School was incorporated in the state of Arizona as a non-profit educational institution. The four original directors for the Corporation were Anthony Lincoln, Richard Mike, Sam Day III, and Patrick Graham. Their initial energies focused on creating endowments for financial stability, but now their responsibilities have been broadened to include both financial and administrative duties.

Another change that was made, in the mid-1980s, was the hiring of a layperson as principal of the high school. John Lincoln held that position for a couple of years, then to be succeeded by John Reilly, who held that position until he retired in June, 2002.

Many of the staff and teachers who worked with Mr. Reilly agree that his greatest “gift” to the school was the establishment of a workable and equitable Code of Ethics and Deportment. He instilled in the students a sense of honesty, trust and self-respect, and encouraged them to excel, both in the classroom and on the athletic field. This gave the high school a good reputation, and enrollment continued to grow.

Although a disciplinarian, Mr. Reilly always gave the students an equal chance. It is said that he wore taps on his shoes so that students (and faculty) could always hear him coming down the hall.

Today, the high school enrollment stands at 170.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament got a real morale-booster in November, 1988, when the foundress of their Order, Mother Katharine Drexel, was beatified. Not only the sisters, but everyone connected with the school was overjoyed when Pope John Paul II canonized Katharine Drexel on October 1, 2000. What a wonderful gift for the new millennium!

Reuben Manuelito ('01) is blessed by Pope John Paul II during the canonization ceremony in Rome, Italy.

Reuben Manuelito (’01) is blessed by Pope John Paul II during the canonization ceremony in Rome, Italy.

Over the past four decades, high school students have continued to pack the trophy cases with new examples of excellence – not only in the fields of sports, but also for entries in the Navajo Science and Culture Fairs, “Making it with Wool” contests and many other competitive activities.

In 1994, after a hiatus of 21 years, football returned to St. Michael. Other high school extra-curricular activities include the National Honor Society, Chess Club, Native American Club, Cross Country as well as Track and Field.

The Elementary School has also seen a period of growth. First, the addition of a Kindergarten class, and beginning in 1996, the provision for after school care, and in 1997 the establishment of the Early Bird Program.

The Early Bird concept is an out-reach program where staff members travel to local Chapter Houses and WIC Centers. It involves the family as the first and best teacher of the child who is learning how to learn. Over the past five years more than 1,300 children under the age of six have participated in the Early Bird Program, which has laid the foundation on which St. Michael Elementary School then builds.

Under the capable leadership of principal Sr. Kathleen Kajer, the elementary school in 2002 was at capacity with an enrollment of 252 pupils. At many grade levels children are turned away for lack of room. Sister Kathleen and the faculty were successful in improving the math and language arts curriculum, and the Computer Lab boasted a full-time coordinator. Teachers have introduced an Earth Club, Engineering Club, and Civil Air Patrol. The last also includes members from the high school.

But all of these improvements and additional activities have not come about without a tremendous cost. Just about one-third of the operational costs of maintaining St. Michael Indian School are covered by tuition and scholarships. The remaining expenditures are balanced by large contributions from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and the Southwest Indian Foundation. Additional income is received from donations and endowments from such diverse organizations as the Koch Foundation, Raskob Foundation, Alfred Harcourt Foundation and the Ottens Foundation. These groups, and many other donors and contributors deserve the thanks and appreciation of all who are associated with St. Michael Indian School. Their support has, to a large degree, made it possible to “Continue the Dream.”

A hundred years have come and gone – and still the long line of students, alumni, and all those who have been touched in one way or another by the school on the banks of Cienega Amarilla, continue to move, both into the annals of history and into the hopes and challenges of the future.

One hundred years of collective memories – of a small, but highly dedicated group of women, some young and some not so young, and many with Irish, German and Italian accents, who devoted their lives to the noble dreams and goals of their leader, now a holy saint in the Catholic Church; of brown robed friars who came first to lay the groundwork for the physical facilities, and then have consistently provided their support and assistance to the school; of Indian leaders and parents who had the courage and foresight to entrust their children to a promise of a brighter future; and of the growing number of lay teachers, who have come from all walks of life and educational backgrounds, but have the singular goal of assisting in the education of our Native American youth…and the dream continues.

One hundred years of collective memories – of scared little children who left the security of hogan or pueblo for the new world of dormitories, classrooms, Red Lane and the Four Chairs, learning English and algebra, catechism lessons, Baptisms and Holy Communion, the excitement of a victorious basketball game… and the agony of defeat, creating new and enduring friendships, the anticipation of the junior/ Senior Prom, Senior class trips, and finally graduation. . . and the dream continues.

And as we enter the second century for St. Michael Indian School, those memories and dreams are still here… are still with us. If you walk among the ancient, stately willows that grow along the Cienega Amarilla, the Yellow Meadow, Ts’ihootso, and feel the soft, gentle autumn breeze on your face, stop and listen. And if you listen to that soft wind, you can hear the voices of all those who have come before.

St. Michael’s School Centurybook

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