By Julie Ferraro
For those who may wonder how many of the Catholic churches came to be founded on the Navajo reservation, the answer lies close to home: St. Michaels Historical Museum.
During the last half of the 19th century, the Navajo people had been forcibly moved to southeastern New Mexico, then allowed to return to their native lands four years later. They found themselves at odds with other tribes, with Mexicans, and American settlers fencing off their lands for their own use. Then came Mother Katharine Drexel, who started the first mission to the Navajo at what is now St. Michaels, Arizona.
She, in turn, invited Franciscan friars from Cincinnati, Ohio, to provide the sacraments to the Navajo. Their history can also be found at St. Michaels Historical Museum, which is housed in the very building where these original Franciscans lived. The chapel seen in the museum is an almost exact replica of where the friars held Mass, and displays recount how they lived and served the Navajo, traveling throughout the reservation, starting churches, studying the Navajo language, and further assisting Mother Katharine when she founded St. Michael Indian School.
The first post office in the area was housed in the Franciscans’ buildings, and they conducted the first comprehensive census of people living on Navajo lands – records available for research yet today!
The Franciscans service to the Navajo continues through present day, with many offering Masses at Chinle, Fort Defiance, Tohatchi, and other churches across the reservation.
St. Michaels Historical Museum opened for the summer on July 1, and will be open seven days a week through Labor Day. September through May, the museum is open by appointment.
Museum hours are: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM; Sundays, 12:00 Noon -4:00 PM. The admission is free, and the building is handicap accessible.
The museum also has a new website, thanks to the new museum administrator, Julie Ferraro. The website offers a brief history of the Franciscans on the reservation, directions to the museum, and a list of select books, cards, and posters for sale. The website address is: www.stmichaelshm.org
St. Michaels Historical Museum is located west of Window Rock, Arizona, on Route 264. Turn south near mile marker 473, and you can’t miss it! It’s a fantastic chance to learn local history, without having to travel very far.
For more information, call St. Michaels Friary: 928-871-4171, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org