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Fr. Cormac’s Navajo Legacy

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By Martin Link

Ever since Fr. Cormac Antram, OFM, came to Navajo Country in 1954, shortly after he was ordained, he has exhibited a passion to learn as much about the Navajo people, their culture, language and history as he could. And now, almost 60 years later, he’s still working at it.

In 1958, while stationed in Chinle, AZ, Fr. Cormac inaugurated The Padre’s Hour, a half-hour, bi-lingual radio program. He continued to broadcast the Sunday morning program on KTNN until May, 2012. Bro. Maynard Shurley, OFM, a Navajo, has continued the program.

In 1987 Fr. Cormac began writing a column for the Voice of the Southwest, the then-weekly publication for the Diocese of Gallup. The column was entitled Saint Watch and was devoted to recounting the lives of saints — especially those saints whose exploits and travels would be of interest to the multi-racial constituency of the Gallup Diocese. That column ended with an 8-part series on the life of Blessed (now Saint) Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Fr. Cormac’s new column, Laborers of the Harvest, appeared in the December 11, 1988 issue of the Voice of the Southwest. It turned out to be a very popular column, and in the decade that followed, nearly 200 articles were published. All of them manifested some aspect of the history and culture of the Navajo, Pueblo, Hispanic or Anglo peoples of  the Four Corners Country. It was felt that a good cross-section of these articles should be reprinted in a more permanent form. So, in 1998, through the efforts of The Indian Trader, Inc. 55 articles were compiled into a publication entitled Laborers of the Harvest.

The same concerns were felt regarding Fr. Cormac’s articles for his first series, Saint Watch. In 2002, his second book entitled Halos & Heroes was published. Thirteen biographies appeared under Halos, and seven additional people were included under Heroes.

All during this time he served as the pastor at parishes in Chinle, Kayenta, Houck and St. Michaels. Besides his parish responsibilities, he was also involved in translating the liturgy of the Roman Mass into the Navajo language.  Actual work on the translation began around 1966, but picked up impetus in 1982 when Bishop Jerome Hastrich established a committee to make it a reality. A group of five priests and five Navajo elders fluent in their language worked on the project, which was chaired by Fr. Cormac. When the task was completed, the translations were submitted to the American Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy for approval. When that was accomplished, the Navajo Mass was sent to the Vatican where is was reviewed, and approved by both the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Divine Worship.

Papal approval and recognition of the Navajo Mass came in mid-December, 1986. Subsequently, several Franciscan priests made the effort to become proficient enough in the Navajo language to recite the entire Mass in that language. However, over the years most of them have either been transferred out of the diocese, or have died. By 2010, it became apparent that the only priest left who had the capability of saying the entire Mass in Navajo was the man who originated it — Fr. Cormac Antram, OFM, and he was 80 years old.

As a personal long-time friend of Fr. Cormac, I was aware of the tremendous amount of time and effort he had put into this project over the course of four decades. And, as a historian I realized that this effort should be permanently recorded for the spiritual edification of future generations of Navajo Catholics.

After receiving permission to pursue this project from Bishop James Wall, I enlisted the help and expertise of Kjell Boersma, a young Canadian film-maker who had just moved to Gallup. The next step was to raise the necessary funds to match Kjell’s proposed budget. With the help of Gurley Motors and several local contributors, that was accomplished by the spring of 2012.

Still from the Navajo Mass DVD - families watch during the liturgy.
Still from the Navajo Mass DVD – families watch during the liturgy.

With the full cooperation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Navajo Mass was filmed at the chapel of Villa Guadalupe on Ascension Thursday, May 17, 2012. Along with Fr. Cormac, Fr. Lawrence Bernard, OFM served as the concelebrator. Troy Etsitty, Gage Etsitty and Brandon Ramone were the Mass Servers. Arlene Hickson and Cecilia Held directed the 11-member choir, with Leonard Yazzie accompanying them on the drum.

Once Kjell Boersma provided us with the finished DVD, which contained all the captions and credits, the project was turned over to 7 Cities Studio in Grants. Under the supervision of Barbara Wesley, the Studio designed the cover and plastic container for copies that are now available to the public. The retail price is $12.50, and if purchased in lots of ten or more, the wholesale price is $7.00 each.

The Navajo Mass video would make a good fund-raising item for churches and schools throughout the Navajo Reservation. To purchase a copy, send a check for the desired number of DVDs to: Diocese of Gallup, PO Box 1338, Gallup, NM, 87301, or for information about obtaining a copy, contact the Diocesan office in Gallup, at (505) 863-4406.

The recorded Mass runs approximately 105 minutes.


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