Along the Old Trail: the History of the Catholic Missions of Houck, AZ


The following comes from a history written by Fr. Cormac Antram and an edition of The Padre’s Trail written by Fr. Martin Radmaker, O.F.M..

Tekakwitha Mission, Houck

To most people, not acquainted with Houck, AZ, one has to add “Fort Courage” to completely identify it. But arriving at this point, and looking to the south, one will see a beautiful, old stone building with a golden dome – and that is the reason for this booklet. This is Tekakwitha Mission and in 2002, it is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Let us delve a bit into its past history.

Houck, 35 miles west of Gallup on I-40 was named after James D. Houck, a once horse-riding mail carrier before he started a trading post in the vicinity in 1874. Years before that, however, the Navajos had given this place the name of Ma’ii or Coyote Springs. And who knows what the Anasazi, who lived here centuries before, called it?

Mr. Houck was here only 11 years and then moved on to the Mogollon Mountains and eventually into the legislature of the Arizona Territory. After he departed from here, the place was called Houck’s Tanks because it was here that the railroad steam locomotives would take on water. Finally, when the diesel locomotives took over, the place was simply called Houck.

Houck’s Trading Post was situated along a cross-country road which, at that time, was the only southern route to California. It was the predecessor of Highway 66, and, from Navajo on the west to about 5 miles to the east, the road stayed on the south side of Rio Puerco.

Gladwell Richardson, in his book “Navajo Trader,” gives us a good picture of trading days at Houck from 1918 till 1921. He says that trading in those days was almost entirely barter but they did use so called “tin money” as did other trading posts as well. Each coin, of various sizes and value, was stamped with the trader’s name.

He says that the Houck T.P. did quite a business in blankets, skins, pelts and pawn. The post here also had separate rooms for tourists, and even a restaurant of sorts. However the tourist trade was still very meager, with most of the trade coming from the local Navajos and from the Mexicans who lived in the “section houses” strung along the railroad. Gladwell adds the remark that most of the Mexican trade came after sundown because, if they were caught by the railroad bosses buying merchandise other than from the railroad supply stores, they would be summarily fired.

Gladwell also describes the long line of Hopis who filed by once a year, walking behind a string of burros, altogether a mile or more long. They came from the Hopi mesas and were on their way to the Zuni Salt Lake. About three weeks later they would file by again, the burros loaded with salt and all their goods having been sold to Zunis, Navajos and Whites.

There is the story Gladwell tells of Big Woman, Asdzaan Tso, which is too good to pass up. One day she came into the store and informed him that she was heading for the White Mountains to hunt for deer and needed two cartridges for her 30-30 Winchester carbine.

“Going deer hunting with only two shells?” the trader asked.

“Two deers are all I can pack on one mule,” she replied. A few days later, sure enough, she returned carrying the butchered carcasses of two deer tied on the pack mule. She did this every fifth week or so, always stopping by the trading post and always purchasing only two cartridges!

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These early days of Houck were not without its share of excitement, even blood-curdling ones. In 1887, after James Houck had moved on, two White men and a Navajo were killed in a shooting incident nearby. Then, there was the time when Charles Duchet showed up at the trading post. Gladwell describes him as “perhaps the West’s toughest frontier fighter” but this appearance appears to have been friendly. He and his companion were seeking a reputed lost gold mine, possibly in the Pine Springs area.

Also, in 1915, the bodies of two traders were found in Cronemyers Trading Post at Allentown, a short distance away. Finally, there was the incident at Billy Burke’s Trading Post, five miles west of Houck. There, some local Navajos had heard about many barrels of whiskey which the trader had hidden under some hides in his picket-post warehouse. They surrounded the trader’s home and gave Burke (Binaa’ Tso – Big Eyes) and his wife an ultimatum to leave because they were going to burn down the post. But Burke stood his ground and, when the sun came up, he began shooting the Navajos in the legs until finally they departed.

Finally, according to Gladwell, Pine Springs had long been a haven for both Indian and White outlaws. Gladwell himself, while minding the store there, possibly escaped with his life by getting the jump on a wanted bank robber.

The above only serves as a backdrop for my main subject, the history of Tekakwitha Mission. *

* Fr. Emanuel Trock, OFM, the founder of the Houck mission, and who was assigned there far longer than anyone else, always spelled the name of the mission “Tegakwitha.” I once questioned him about it and his reply was that it made it easier to pronounce.

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The Early Years

In 1877 James D. Houck, the mail carrier from Prescott, Arizona to Fort Wingate, New Mexico established a sheep ranch and trading post about 8 miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico state line where Black Creek joins the Rio Puerco. He dug a stock pond or tank which was the only water around. With the building of the Atlantic and Pacific Railway in 1881 Houck became the third station west of the state line. When the post office was established there in 1884 it was first given the name of “Houck’s Tank” and later shortened to “Houck.” In 1907 Houck was a Wells Fargo Station.

Although this area was not made part of the Navajo Reservation until about 1934, the Navajos have lived there since the 17th century. After the treaty of 1868, the Navajos who had lived here before Ft. Sumner returned. But since they were living outside the official limits of their reservation, they had no legal title to the lands they occupied.

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White men began to move in, homesteading on the public domain lands and leasing lands from the railroad company which had received government grants of all the odd-numbered sections in this territory when it built its lines through here on the way to the Pacific coast.

Father Anselm Weber undertook to help these Navajos, knowing they would be forced onto the reservation by white settlers unless they gained legal title to the lands they were occupying and using. He had to advise them of the provisions of the land laws, survey their holdings and prepare the required documents for the U. S. Land Office. Even local officials did not realize that the Allotment Act applied to Indians. When Fr. Anselm went on horseback to the county courthouse at St. Johns with two Navajos on June 6, 1901, he had to show the judge how to execute the required documents.

When Fr. Anselm would have Mass and give religious instructions in their homes, the Indians repeatedly asked him to build a mission among them. Nakai Chee (Red Mexican), whose whole family had benefited from Fr. Anselm’s labors, wanted the mission to be built on his land. He offered the Fathers five acres of his allotment in the early 1920’s. But it was not until 1927 that a small chapel was built on this site under the direction of Fr. Jerome Hesse. The Marquette League of New York City donated the funds for this stone chapel and it was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist on November 20, 1927.

Once a month, a padre from St. Michaels came down to say Mass in the Houck chapel. It soon became apparent that this was an ideal location for a mission with a resident priest and a day school. A goodly number of Navajos had long been living in the Houck area on either side of the railroad. There was both the Rio Puerco Valley and the low lands that could be irrigated with the waters of the Rio Puerco and Black Creek. Here the Indians had built their homes and started little farms on which they raised alfalfa, corn, melons and beans. They herded their small flocks of sheep in the surrounding hills.

Hosteen Nez and his wife at their hogan just southwest of Houck Mission.

When Father Arnold Heinzmann was appointed superior of the Navajo missions in 1931 he began to finalize the plans for a school, dispensary, rectory and convent at Houck. It was decided to build one large two-story building to serve all the needs.

The rectory would be on the first floor of one wing, the convent and dispensary in the other and the second floor would provide classrooms for up to 100 pupils. Work began in October of 1926, but the “big snow” which came in November halted further construction until the next spring. (From my own investigation, I found that most of the rock probably came from the hill south of the tracks at Allentown and was hauled by wagon. Another possible source was northwest of the Houck Community Cemetery – Fr. Cormac).

As work progressed on the large two-story building which was joined to the original small chapel in the form of a “T”, Fr. Arnold said that it looked like a mouse up against an elephant. The decision was then made to tear down the original chapel and build a larger one more in proportion to the new building. The dedication of Tekakwitha school and mission was held on November 3, 1932. Father Arnold conducted the ceremonies.

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It was a great celebration. It began with a concert by the St. Michaels School Band. The blessing and Solemn High Mass were attended by over 500 people – some 20 Franciscans, several priests of the diocese, a number of Sisters, railroad and government officials and several hundred Navajos. During the afternoon civic program there were speeches by Superintendent Hunter and prominent Navajos such as J. A. Lincoln, Judge Hosteen Altsosigi, Jim Shirley, Little Silversmith and Sam Jones. These were followed by races and other contests ending with the “Nahohai” or “Chicken Pull” in which more than 25 Navajos participated on horseback.

Father Emanuel Trockur was the first resident priest at Tekakwitha Mission. He had been assigned to take care of Ft. Wingate with his residence in Gallup by the 1932 summer meeting of the Provincial Board. With the Houck mission nearing completion, he was asked to supervise the completion of the buildings and get the school started. He remained for 20 years. On October 10, 1932 Fr. Emanuel’s brother Michael moved into the still incomplete apartment building at Houck. He and his wife Clara stayed to help Fr. Emanuel for two years.

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There was still much work to be done before the school would be ready to open. They had begun to dig the well on September 19th. They finished the 360 foot hole on October 24th, but still had to install the casing and pump. The log of the well concludes with these simple lines: “Pump was started for the first time Nov. 25, 1932, Friday, at about 4:15 p.m. and water came after almost seven minutes of pumping. Tanks were than placed in position and we had cold running water in the house the following afternoon. Hot water was connected on Tuesday, Nov. 29, ‘32.”

Finally all the preparations were completed for the first school day of Tekakwitha Indian School on Dec. 5, 1932. Sisters Emanuel and Dolorosa, Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Tucson, were the first teachers. Only five pupils were on hand. A real beginning was made in January, 1933 with 21 pupils. By the fall of 1933 the enrollment was up to 50 students. In 1934 Mother Katharine Drexel sent her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to staff the school. They remained until it closed in 1964. During its 32 years of operation its eight grades consisted for the most part of Indian children, although there were some Mexican and white children. The enrollment was 80-some children during most of these years.

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In 1934 Fr. Emanuel’s brother returned to Illinois and his sister Anna came with her husband Joe Nagel. They helped at the mission for 14 years. In 1950 Fr. Burcard Fisher was assigned to Houck to help Fr. Emanuel and build the chapel at Pine Springs. In 1952 he succeeded him as pastor.

During his 20 years at Tekakwitha Mission, Fr. Emanuel was counselor to and defender of the Indians in many matters, especially those dealing with the railroad officials and land allotments.

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With the extension of the reservation in 1934 his knowledge of Fr. Anselm’s work enabled him to protect the rights of the Indians with allotments. Fr. Emanuel was always proud of the help he gave Pat Murphy to become the first Navajo to obtain Railroad Retirement. He was also well known to the railroad officials as the defender of the Navajo laborers when an unscrupulous foreman tried to take advantage of them.

The first burial in the cemetery at the Houck Mission was that of a year and a half old infant, Ke Giyah, at the Northwest corner on April 27, 1934. During the twenty-five years it was used, 147 burials are recorded in the Parish records. The last was on Jan. 16, 1959. Since that time burials have been at the Houck Community Cemetery across the highway a little to the West.

In 1964 Tekakwitha Indian School was closed. The following year a formation program for promising Indian boys of high school age was sponsored by the Franciscans. It was called “St. Anselm Apostolic School” in honor of Fr. Anselm Weber. Fr. Paul Scales was appointed director of this program. The former classrooms provided boarding room for the boys as they received special training at the mission and attended classes at Cathedral High School in Gallup. But after a year the program was found to be unfeasible and was discontinued.

(The above from Fr. Martan Rademaker ’s account as taken from “The Padre’s Trail, ” Oct-Nov, 1977).


  1. I love this, thank you so much for sharing. I took my religious classes and my first communion at St. John the Evangelist. I never knew why the road it is on was named St. Anselm until I read this article, let alone the rest of this rich history shared by Fr. Antram, and Fr. Rademaker.


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