By Julie Ferraro
When you anticipate a journey for months, the day can’t arrive too soon. For the Youth Group at St. Mary Mission, Tohatchi, Wednesday, June 24, proved the culmination of much hard work.
The teens – and many of their parents – held a raffle, and volunteered their time at St. Mary’s parish bingo over the course of four months to raise the funds for their mission trip to Saints Peter and Paul Church in Reading, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Where many college and high school groups – including Saints Peter and Paul – had visited St. Mary’s on their mission trips over the years, this was a chance to “return the favor” in a way, and for the Native American youngsters to get a taste of Midwest life.
Beth Pettigrew, Pastoral Associate at Saints Peter and Paul parish, noted, “Youth and adults from our parish have visited St. Mary’s eleven times over the past 16 years to help at their mission doing things like Summer Bible School, outreach, building, cleaning, hauling, and painting. You name it and we’ve done it. This time the people of St. Mary’s taught their youth that it was time for them to give back, that they too have gifts and talents to share, and that they do not always need to be the receivers of mission work.”
Beth understood, though, that fundraising could be an issue for the St. Mary’s group. “Having the youth and their families come to Saints Peter and Paul has been a dream of ours for years. With the economic situation on the reservation, we honestly never thought it could happen. But, as you know, with God all things are possible. They got determined, and they did it!”
June 24 began with a special Mass for the Youth Group at St. Mary’s Church. The pews were peppered with turquoise t-shirts, custom made for the trip, bearing the motto, “From the four sacred mountains to the cities…Serving God’s people together.” Sr. Pat Bietsch, OSF, coordinator of the Youth Group, explained the purpose of the trip: “It’s not our mission, it’s God’s. It’s not about us. “
At the conclusion of the liturgy, the seventeen travelers gathered at the edge of the sanctuary to be blessed by Emery Begay, Medicine Man, before hopping in two vans for the drive to the Albuquerque Sunport.
In Cincinnati, accommodations were provided by host families from Saints Peter and Paul for part of the trip, and at the parish school. Cornell Iyua, who traveled with his wife, Clara Kinsel, and three daughters, remarked, “The hospitality was great. Our host family kept wanting to give, give, give.”
On Thursday, the group had the opportunity to rake and mulch the church grounds, some seeing a lawn of green grass for the first time in their lives. “My girls, they miss the green,” said Clara Kinsel.
Ejay Lorenzo, who accompanied his wife, Sadie Yazzie, and two children on the trip, laughed as he recalled the task. “Everybody enjoyed mulching. It was dirty work, but we enjoyed it.”
Other tasks the group assisted with were washing windows in the old school building, and rebuilding a rock wall.
The next day, thanks to Sr. Pat Bietsch’s sister, Peg Schuckman, the group went swimming, to beat a heat quite different from that in New Mexico.
Fr. Dale Jamison, OFM, pastor of St. Mary’s, joined the group for much of their trip, including an excursion to Oldenburg, Indiana, on Saturday. This visit to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis featured a tour of the buildings and Doll’s Apple Orchard. The Fireman’s Festival Parade passed along the street for them to watch while in town, too.
During the Youth Group’s interaction with elderly Sisters in the Oldenburg Franciscan retirement center, Fr. Jamison found himself impressed. “It was amazing. Here are these women, with canes and walkers, and the group spread out to the tables in twos, sitting and talking with them.”
This part of the trip, in fact, proved most memorable for many in the Youth Group. Sr. Millie Speed, OSF, had spent a number of years at St. Mary Mission, Tohatchi, and donated her Jeep for the raffle held by the Youth Group as a fundraiser. While their visit surprised Sr. Millie, the Youth Group members were touched by their warm reception at the convent.
Rain threatened to ruin some of the events for the group, but alternatives presented themselves. The Newport Aquarium in Kentucky, substituted for a boat tour along the Ohio River Tuesday afternoon. A baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins ran late that evening, thanks to rain delays.
Janelle Buffalo, who went on the trip with her mother, Laverne Buffalo, found their visit to the Basilica in Kentucky memorable. “It was really beautiful,” she stated. She also enjoyed the chance to attend Mass or a communion service each morning, and having time for prayer.
Cornyra Iyua added, “What really inspired me was the Taft Museum. There’s a whole gallery of us, Native Americans of all tribes.” Meeting a lot of new friends also touched her heart.
Laverne saw the trip as an opportunity for growth. “It wasn’t just for us. It was for our parish, our community.”
“There was never a down day,” Sr. Pat Bietsch asserted.
“My son surprised me,” observed Ejay Lorenzo. “He came out of his shell.” Many of the other parents noticed the same about their youngsters. Ejay concluded, “It brought joy to my heart.”
Thursday, July 2, the group prepared fry bread and blue corn mush for parishioners, and gave a presentation of Native language, song, dancing and stories. They presented a large ceramic pot – made by Agnes Woods, grandmother of Elijah Watson, Youth Group President – to Saints Peter and Paul’s new pastor, Fr. Matt Robben, who in turn presented each of the Youth Group members a token of thanks for their visit.
Robert Bemmes, mayor of Reading, Ohio, issued a proclamation welcoming the Youth Group, which was read during the presentation. He thanked the “Ambassadors of the Navajo Nation” who “worked very hard and sacrificed much” to make the trip, “in order to give of themselves, share their talents, stories, cultures and Traditions.”
When they arrived back in Tohatchi on Independence Day afternoon, the youth and their parents were tired, but inspired. “It increased our faith,” said Sadie Yazzie. “And we shared our faith with others.”
Laverne Buffalo summed up the journey well: “We know what’s out there for them now.”