In November 1988, Marie Allen stood at the lectern and presented the official petitions at the beatification Mass of St. Katharine Drexel. As far as anyone knew, her reading of the petition was the first time the Navajo language was ever spoken in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Now, nearly thirty years later, Allen sits like a small beam of concentrated sunshine in the basement of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish in Ft. Defiance, Arizona. She’s waiting here, like every Sunday after Mass, for her Confirmation students to arrive. Today she’s preparing several adults to be received into the Church in Spring of 2018, but Allen has been a common sight in both the Catholic and Navajo communities surrounding Fr. Defiance for many decades.
In 1900, her father, Hosteen Tso, was one of the first six people baptized into the Catholic faith in St. Michaels, Arizona. His home was Hunter’s Point, a small nearby village, where he lived raising crops and sheep along with his wife and five children. It was young Marie’s whole world, until the day her father decided to send his children to the Catholic boarding school at St. Michaels.
Hosteen would visit his children at least once a week, and soon he forged a friendship with the Franciscan priest who ran the post office at the school and had learned enough Navajo to hold a conversation. This relationship soon proved useful when Allen, at age eleven, decided she wanted to officially become Catholic.
“The priest said ‘you’re taking religion classes, but if you want to become Catholic, it’s open to you. If you want to be baptized and receive the Sacraments, we have to get your parents’ permission,’” Allen recalls. The religion taught to the students by the Franciscans seemed a natural fit for her, a child who was raised to rise at dawn each day to pray with her parents.
Her parents had no formal education and could not read, but after conversations with his daughter and the postmaster priest, Hosteen agreed.
“He said ‘well, we’ve taught you in the traditional way of prayer and ceremonies and blessings. So if you go to the Church, you have to learn just as much as you learn regarding traditional culture. You would need to study and learn all about what you’re joining. You just don’t go when you want to. You have to go – and you have to know – everything. Everything you need to know about the Church, you find out and you have to live it. So just tell the Father that I said it was okay,’” Allen remembers her father saying.
Allen’s three older brothers graduated from the 8th grade and returned home to help with the demands of farming, but she would continue on to become the first person in her family to graduate high school, and eventually college, obtaining a health degree from St. Anthony College in Denver. In this, too, her relationship with her father forged a career path.
“My father’s been my tremendous influence. When I was going to school, he always encouraged me. He said ‘I never went to school but I really want you to go all the way through high school. I understand that there’s higher education. Go through it. Your people need you in the community. The people go to the hospital only when they’re very sick, but they’re sick at home, where they die and nobody knows.’”
Allen could have moved anywhere in the country with her newfound knowledge and degree, but she returned home, to work in various hospitals around Ft. Defiance. She also immediately got involved with the local Catholic parishes in any way she could, teaching classes and catechism.
This was the litmus test when she met the man who would become her husband. Perry Allen, a marine who was awarded the Purple Heart for his service during the Second World War, would become the prosecutor for the Navajo Nation in the 1960s. But for Marie, one thing mattered above all else – her faith.
“I don’t make any excuses about anything. My children know – even my husband knew before I married him. I said ‘this is what I do, this is what I believe. I am Catholic. I go to Church and I teach in Church and I want to continue that.’” She laughs, remembering. “Before I got married I said ‘I’m committed to this, and if you don’t want me involved, then you’re not marrying me.’”
But Perry Allen was amenable, and was received into the Church by the priest who then married the couple.
Throughout Marie’s career, she learned to handle sickness and, often, death, as she visited homes and hospital rooms in her ministries.
“I’ve always done ministry,” she says. “Where I went for my clinical training…the priests were there, the sisters were there. I went to Mass and took communion to patients. I think just being with sick people, all the way to the end – every time that they want prayers, I say prayers with them.”
But the true test of her faith would come when death visited close to home. After her children were raised and living lives on their own, one of her sons had difficulty managing a diagnosis of diabetes, and the disease began to take its toll on his kidneys. One day, a friend knocked on his door, and received no response.
“He was unconscious when they found him at his apartment,” Allen remembers. “The doctor said he had already been without oxygen, but they didn’t know – nobody knew how long he was. He was too far gone by the time they found him.”
Allen requested that a priest be present to anoint him, and then her son was gone. Since then, Allen weathered the loss of her parents, brothers, and husband. And yet today, she sits here in the basement of the parish, warm and welcoming. No matter where or when you see her, it is impossible to catch Allen without a smile or a sense of quiet, contented happiness.
Her life has had its moments of great joy as well. In 1988, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament received word that their foundress, Katharine Drexel, would be beatified. As many Drexel’s main legacy was the number of schools established to serve Native American and African American communities, the sisters wished to choose a Native American student of those schools to present the petitions at the Mass in Rome. Allen was the person they turned to. She translated the petition into Navajo, and her face lights up at the memory of the beatification Mass.
“I was just so amazed by the Basilica. I went back in after the Pope left and everybody was outside.,” she recalls. “I just prayed and thanked the Lord for getting there. I said ‘I never in my life expected to be here’. I was so at peace I didn’t even want to go out.”
She was also able to be present at an audience with Pope John Paul II, where she shook his hand.
“I never planned, I never prayed to go see the Pope or anything – it just happened. It’s all the Lord’s work.”
In 2012, she returned to Rome with a group from the Diocese of Gallup, led by Bishop James Wall, for the canonization Mass of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint.
“I’ve always known about Kateri since high school. I’m a secular Franciscan, and our fraternity was the Kateri Tekakwitha Fraternity. I said ‘when she’s a saint, I am going. I’m gonna be there.’”
Our interview is interrupted as the first student, a middle-aged Navajo woman, opens the basement door.
“Good morning!” Marie beams at her. “Today we’re learning all about who leads the Church – the Pope and Bishops.”
Have you found a Confirmation sponsor yet? She asks. No, the student replies.
“Well just pray, pray you’ll get somebody,” Marie tells her. “When you become part of RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults], we become a little community. You become like part of the family, here.”
Community, family – both form the essence of Marie’s worldview. Through life’s hardships and losses of loved ones, her Catholic faith, Navajo beliefs, and indomitable positive outlook has allowed her to create a family from her community. She accepts many invitations to coming out ceremonies for young people and prayer leadings at chapter houses. Whether formally speaking Navajo in front of a Pope and audience of thousands, or leading a small prayer group in a church basement, her Catholic faith guides her through life.
“My dad really stressed that – he said ‘It’s our Creator who you need to get to know through the Church. We believe in the Creator and we pray, but we know that eventually, after death, we turn back to spiritual beings. It seems like the Catholic Church will give you more.’”