Saint Francis Parish is located at Whiteriver, the center of the White Mountain Apache tribe. Whiteriver is located in a beautiful valley surrounded by forest lands which provide good grass for raising cattle.
Early Friar Praised Apaches’ Character
Writing in 1629, Frey Alonso Benavides gave an extensive description of the Apaches. Sharing with his compatriots an awareness of the tribe’s warlike qualities, he nevertheless singled them out for praise of character, declaring them to be “more trustworthy” than many of the other tribes encountered between Mexico City and Santa Fe. He speaks of them as truthful, says the children were trained in obedience, and gives accounts of conversions among them. From the tone of his remarks, it is possible to conclude that were he able, he would have liked to spend his life working among them.
The Apaches, however, confronted with white invasions from Spain, Mexico, and then the United States, are best known today for their nineteenth century reputation of waging war that neither gave nor asked pity.
It took longer to “subdue” the Apaches than any other tribe. And there is scant record of any attempts to bring Christianity to them since the days of Benavides.
Few Christian Apaches
In 1921, the first Catholic mission work among the Fort Apache Reservation Indians was begun by Father Justin Deutseh, O.F.M. When he arrived he found almost no Christians among the 2,600 Apaches then living on the reservation.
Father Justin started work on the first mission, then, at Whiteriver, dedicating it to St. Francis. The church was ready for use in November, 1922, but it was June of 1924 before it received formal dedication by Bishop Daniel J. Gercke of Tucson. The church and residence, a single building, was constructed of cement blocks which had been manufactured on the property by the Apache parishioners.
A few years later – in September, 1928 – work was started under the direction of Father Fidelis Voss, O.F.M., on a chapel and residence at Cibecue. Arizona, and the chapel was completed in December of the same year. A large number of Apaches turned out for the dedication of the chapel. The residence was ﬁnished in May, 1929.
In the early years of the parish, Whiteriver had missions at Cibecue and Cedar Creek. In 1947, Father Leo Simon, OFM, then pastor at Whiteriver, undertook the task of constructing a church at Cedar Creek. The church was completed and dedicated to Saint Anthony in September, 1947. Fr. Simon reported that there was a “good attendance” at the first Mass celebrated in the chapel, September 24, 1947.
Later, with the formation of the Cibecue parish, the priests here were no longer responsible for the two missions.
In 1921, when the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara established a mission for the Apaches at Whiteriver – the headquarters of the Apache Indian agency – the Franciscan missionary there began to make the arduous trip to McNary to minister to the spiritual needs of the Spanish Catholics living there. Later McNary became a parish in its own right.
The surrounding lakes have been developed as a recreational area, providing income for the people. A Public Health Service Indian Hospital located here provides additional jobs for the people, as does the school.
Pictures and history taken from Diocesan archives