The following history is taken from several sources: Press Releases by Dennis A. Stevens, A brief history of Lukachukai by Elizabeth Kelley, a second brief history by Fr. Thomas J. Blomstrom, O.F.M., and finally a large series of personal reflections by an unknown author. All histories located in Diocesan archives.

The Beginning

Situated close to an old sacred Navaho ceremonial spring in a sea of gray-green sage against a background of masses of tawny, orange-red sandstone cliffs which buttress the soaring pine-clad heights of the Lukachukai Mountains is located the picturesque Saint Isabel Navaho Mission. The forty acres of sacred ground which comprise the mission site at Lukachukai, Arizona is about one hundred miles in a northerly direction from Gallup, New Mexico and about thirty-five miles from Chinle.

The earliest information that we have of missionary contact with Lukachukai dates back to 1901, at which time Father Anselm Weber, O.F.M. visited Tsehili to gather pupils for St. Michaels School. Tsehili is a district about thirteen miles southeast of Lukachukai. Of this occasion Father Anselm wrote the following:

“It is now a bit over fifteen years ago, two years prior to the opening of our (St. Michael) school, that Father Leopold Osterman, O.F.M., and I rode to Tsehili for the first time, in order to meet a number of Indians there at the home of our friend, Big Charley, and, if possible, to persuade them to send their children to the Catholic Indian School at Santa Fe, New Mexico. We arrived there late in the evening. On the following morning began the discussions with the Indians present, at which a certain ‘Tsish bizhi’ , i.e., Braided Hair, especially took the lead. He is a quite wealthy and influential Navajo from Lukachukai, who until then strongly opposed every school. A slender, sinewy frame with noble, regular features, with an eye of fire and vitality – he makes a favorable impression. He held the floor for over an hour. His final questions touched upon moral education. When I told him that the main difference between our Schools and the Government Schools lay in this that we not only educated the children but also led them on to a good moral life, then he was at at peace, rose, up, called me his Chief and Father, shook our hands, left the room, swung himself upon his horse and rode away to fetch his son and nephew. He did all this with such decision that it seemed as if he were out to conquer the world. We were convinced that in him we won an able friend.

“On the third day of our stay at Big Charley’s, five boys were gathered there with their parents or relatives, and we were only awaiting the arrival of the aforementioned Tsish bizhe. On the forenoon of the fourth day he finally made his appearance with his wife, his little nephew and his son; the latter, a small lad of about ten years, made a very good impression upon us just as his father did. Like a full grown man he came a-riding upon his bronco; his expressive features beamed with delight at the prospect of being allowed to go to school far away from home among the palefaces. However, his mother betrayed through her entire behavior how it pained her to part with her darling. Finally Tsish bizhi and Big Charley accompanied me with the pupils to Santa Fe. On the way, two of the seven pupil were finally taken away from me by the Government, because they had attended the Government School at Fort Defiance and therefore were not permitted to transfer to a Catholic School.

“The son of Tsish bizhi – I named him Paul – who during the journey showed the great liveliness that he displayed on that day, developed in the cramped School a homesickness for the free air of the Lukachukai mountains, and he would not stop crying. However, his father controlled himself, and let him carry on as we travelled off. Only few would have possessed courage enough to part with their children under such circumstances.

“Why do I again refresh these thoughts? Because at that time, fifteen years ago, I heard of Lukachukai for the first time, and because this was the very beginning of our Lukachukai mission. Only two of these pupils were from Lukachukai itself, but the others were from Tsehili and Red Rock, a Mission Station being tended from Lukachukai (at the present time).”

Red Rock is a district about 20 miles north of Lukachukai, on the other side of the mountain.

Lukachukai Mission Land Site


The Church at Lukachukai. Credit: Dennis Stevens.

Father Anselm continues in the same article: “Just when I visited Lukachukai for the first time, I can’t exactly recall any more – something that no one need wonder at due to my ‘roaming life’. However, I know that in May, 1908, I partook of a very good noonday meal at Paul’s father – ‘very good’, perhaps because we were half starved…I remember, too, that in the fall of the same year, while I was roving through the Southern part of the Reservation to win pupils for our School, the Indians from Lukachukai brought a number of children for our School entirely unsolicited and unsummoned. Since that time we always had a considerable number of children from there in our school. And it was never necessary to go there to hold meetings and to urge them to send their children to school; they did that of their own choosing. The Indians there are not rich; neither are they especially blessed with culture; but they are diligent and industrious, live mainly by farming and have built long irrigation ditches wherein they lead the water upon their fields out of both the mountain streams running through the valley. Since the year 1903 I have visited this valley time and again.

“Already for years the necessity urged us to found a Mission Station in the Lukachukai Valley for Lukachukai, Red Rock and Tsehili.”

The donation of a piece of land for this purpose was given by the Indians in 1909. Father Marcellus Troester, O.F.M. writes the following:

“The fact that a large number of children from this neighborhood attended our School at St. Michaels, Arizona,…six years ago led the Reverend Anselm Weber; O.F.M., to choose this place for the establishment of a Mission. Occasionally he had visited this place from St. Michaels in order to give the Catholic children an opportunity to attend Mass and receive the the Sacraments when at home, and had used one of the better Indian houses for this purpose, but it was at once apparent that this was unfit for divine service, and he therefore began to take steps towards acquiring ground for the erection of a suitable chapel. Having learned that the Yeibichai, the renowned Navajo dance, was to take place in the Lukachukai Valley on October 9, 1909, and anticipating the presence of a large crowd of Indians, he deemed the time propitious to lay his petition before them and obtain from than a piece of land and their consent to establish a mission there, all of which was most willingly granted. The site selected by the Indians themselves for this mission contains a spring of good clear water, in fact, the best and most active spring in the while neighborhood.”

Incidentally, it might be interesting to note what Father Marcellus has further to say of this spring.

“A curious coincidence, a case of poetic restitution one might call it, was the bestowal of this site for mission purposes, inasmuch as this very spring has, for centuries past and until lately, been used in their heathen-ish ceremonies and was considered sacred by the Navajo, so much so, that it was looked upon as a crime and an infallible portent of impending misfortune to use this water for either man or beast. And now this same spring bubbles forth the water used in the regenerating Sacrament of Baptism, yes, for the sublime Sacrifice of the Mass itself.

“Qabo’ol’aesi, (it is tramped out), is the name by which this spring is known in one of their legends. According to this legend the Buffalo People, who were considered deities, undertook a journey from West to East in company with the Deer, Antelope, Bighorn and Mountain Goats, all deities. They left Dok’ooslid, the San Francisco Peak, which is the Sacred Mountain of the West and headed toward Tsisnajin, the Sacred Mountain of the East, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Having arrived at the foot of the Lukachukai Mountains they looked in vain for water wherewith to quench their thirst, whereupon the Buffalos began stamping the around until it became moist, and they continued this procedure until finally there was sufficient water for all to drink.”

Lukachukai Mission Land Title

Concerning our title to this land, here as well as elsewhere, Father Anselm has this to say:

“The land belongs, indeed, to the Indians as a group and by that fact remains yet, alas! under the power of the Government, and how they handle Indian Lands is surely sufficiently known. The following clause is contained in the Law: The Indians of a specified region must send through their Agent to the Secretary of the Interior a petition undersigned by than that a specified piece of land for Mission use be granted to a specified religious organization. If the request is agreeable to the Indian Agent and to the Indian Commissioner and recommended by them, the Secretory of the Interior will set aside the piece of land in question ‘for temporary possession and use‘, i.e., as long as it please the Secretary of the Interior and the Indians and as long as it is being used for Mission purposes. Then if later the Reservation should be divided among the individual Indians and opened to colonization for the white people, the Church or the various religious organizations would acquire in the Law a good Title of Right to these lands by that Act of Congress.


Navajo dancing the Yeibichai. – via Library of Congress.

“When we wanted to found a Mission at Chin Lee, the Indians themselves chose the piece of ground 160 acres, and very readily undersigned our petition to the Secretary of the Interior. They did the some at Lukachukai, where they turned over to us the best spring in the whole surroundings and 40 acres of land.

“At the present time, the Mission Compound consists of about 3 acres, including the aforementioned spring, all fenced in. About 20 acres of good farm land to the South, has been appropriated by one of our former interpreters, Chic Sandoval. This he has fenced in, and has had officially numbered by the Government. The root of our property is exposed subsoil, except for a few scattered good spots.”

The First Chapel

After he had gotten the site, Father Anselm was unable to build at once due to a lack of funds. Father Marcellus tells us: “It was nearly two years later that the ground was broken and the building commenced.”

This must have been in the summer of 1911. He further states: “Reverend Anselm Weber had engaged an American to take over the contract who, with the help of some Navajos, put up a substantial stone building, consisting of a large chapel with two rooms appended, the latter intended for the use of the visiting missionary.

“The funds for this Chapel were generously supplied by a number of persons, two having donated $500 each, and Mr. James J. Condon of Jersey City, N.J., $510, and it was upon the latter’s request that the Chapel was placed under the patronage of St. Isabella.

“A liberal contribution of $150 was also received from friends at Flagstaff, Arizona, the rest being contributed by many others of different parts of the States.

“On account of the great distance of the base of supplies – the lumber coming from a distance of 50 miles, the other materials 90 miles – the total cost of the building, as it now stands, was $2240.82, and since the available funds amounted to $1940.82, there still remains a debt of $300.00, and consequently the plastering, painting and inside furnishings had to be postponed until some later date.

Navajo man Tsishchilli Tsossie and Fr. Anselm.

Navajo man Tsishchilli Tsossie and Fr. Anselm.

“In 1912 the writer (Father Marcellus Troester, O.F.M.) was appointed to take charge of this mission and it is now visited regularly once a month except during the winter when most of the Indians move away to find some new pastures for their sheep and cattle. The Chapel was so far completed that it could be used and the dedication took place on June 22, 1912. The different schools on the Reservation had just closed and all the children of Lukachukai and surrounding neighborhood were present for the celebration. The neighboring Indians had also been invited and a large number put in their appearance, eager to see the novel ceremony. The dedication was performed by the Reverend Anselm Weber, after which followed Solemn High Mass and Benediction and an appropriate address in which the ceremonies of the day were explained to the attending Indians.”

In November of 1917, Father Berard Haile, O.F.M., wrote: “The chapel is still indebted to the amount of $300.00. In addition the shingle roof of the Chapel clamors for a coat of paint or stain. The interior is a quicksand-plaster finish, of which the stones and lath themselves seem ashamed, as they discard their plaster at every touch. The altar is a makeshift of two by four posts and boards, which are curtained in front for decorum’s sake, affording also some store room for altar supplies. The balance of my church furniture consists of a stove which even now, in these cold November days, you must encourage by close proximity lest you forget the fire therein. A few wooden backless benches afford seating facilities, while an abominably large tool chest, a reminder of the pioneer building days, is all that is available for a vestment case. Through the munificence of our Father Provincial (The Very Reverend Rudolph Bonner, O.F.M.) we are in possession of a wood-working machine which will enable us to manufacture our Mission church furniture.”

In 1916, Father Berard recorded that a certain Miss U. Dahlgreen, of Lenox, Massachusetts, donated three beautiful statues; one of the Sacred Heart with arms extended, another of the Immaculate Conception, and a third of St. Joseph bearing the child Jesus.

Father Berard also acknowledged receipt of the following church furnishings: an organ from Mrs. Joseph Nurre of Cincinnati, Ohio; a monstrance, ciborium, Benediction veil and altar cards from the Extension Society, the designated gift of James J. Condon, of Jersey City, New Jersey; a ciborium from St. Boniface Parish, Peoria, Illinois, through the kindness of Reverend Eusebius Wagner, O.F.M., pastor.

Original interior of the Lukachukai church.

Original interior of the Lukachukai church.

Father Marcellus writes concerning the church bell: “Through the charity of Miss Condon, daughter of the above mentioned James J. Condon, we have a fair sized bell with which to call them to church. It has a beautiful clear tone that reaches out to the remotest parts of this settlement. To think that in these wilds, where but a scant fifty years ago the mountains rang and re-echoed with the blood-curdling war cry of these savages, we now hear the peaceful voice of a church bell inviting and drawing these same children of the forests and plains to the house of God!”


Up until 1915, Lukachukai was a station of Chinle. Father Marcellus made the monthly trip on horseback. Even though the Chapel was finished with the appended rooms, it was not given the status of Residence until the July Chapter of 1915. Father Berard was appointed first Pastor and superior. He had been stationed heretofore at St. Michael’s Mission. Brother Gervase Thuemmel, O.F.M. was appointed cook and caretaker.

That their living quarters were too cramped soon became evident. So it was not long before the construction of a good-sized residence was begun. Father Berard relates: “St. Isabel’s was distinguished by a chapel only to which two small rooms had been added in its rear. As these rooms measured each about 8 x 8 feet in the square and were intended originally for the accommodation of a visiting missionary only, and later for sacristies, it was evident that this temporary arrangement had to be superseded by a permanent dwelling. For the present, however, until the completion of the residence, these two rooms served as kitchen, dining, and sitting room, while the chapel had to be used as a sleeping and store room, much as this was regretted. It was thought at first, that owing to scarcity of suitable sand (which later was found in abundance) a log building might prove most economical, requiring less time and labor than a building of stone. Yet, when the 1ogs were delivered from a distance of 15 miles that plan had to be abandoned, as the logs proved more suitable for a telephone line then for building purposes. They served us well, however, for a shed and stable with dirt roof.

“Building rock was found within a mile of St. Isabel’s, and the quarry was opened and ground broken on the feast of St. Bartholomew. The brother, with the assistance of some Indians, had soon quarried sufficient rock for the teamsters who impatiently awaited the job of hauling them. To avoid friction as many were employed as cared to haul eight loads at $2.50 a day. That placed 200 loads of rock and 30 loads of sand within reach of the builders in three days, while adobe for mortar was found in the grounds at a small depth. Brother Gervase and myself were assisted in the stonework by a Navajo mason, called Kinil’ini, the builder, and his brother Frank, with Augustine, a former St. Michael’s pupil carrying the hod. This force completed the stonework shortly before Christmas, while the Brother and myself are attending to the carpenter work at present writing.

Dedication of the Church at Lukachukai, 1912.

Dedication of the Church at Lukachukai, 1912.

“The expenses have thus been held at a minimum. The stonework in the finished wall, for instance, just exceeded $600, while the cost of the other material, furnishings and above all excessive freight rates carry the cost above the $2000 mark. Our supply station is Gallup, N.M., 90 miles distant, whence freight is hauled at 90 cents per cwt., or at a cent a mile. Lumber from a sawmill 40 miles distant is rated at 50 cents per cwt., and at that you receive your freight with a smile for the reason that your teamster is as awkward and unconcerned about its safe delivery as possible, and you have no redress.”

In the same article Father Berard, in relating their experiences with white visitors while still living in their small quarters, gives some idea of their poor furnishings and cramped quarters.

“With space for a chalk line left in the kitchen and sitting room, much material had accumulated in the chapel, where on this account the Blessed Sacrament is not kept. To obtain additional floor space the furniture, as small tables, a home-made wash stand, the stove and wall closets only were stationary, while the chairs are of the folding camp chair order, and instead of beds folding cots were used. As a temporary arrangement this condition is good enough for the like of us, but is offered with reluctance to Eastern ladies. Still on this occasion the cots were decorated with brand new sheets, comforters and blankets, which made all the difference in the world in their appearance. The chapel with its cots was proffered to the ladies for the night, while the men repaired to the kitchen floor for a rest.”

Incidentally, as a result of this visit, the Mission was made the recipient of the three beautiful statues mentioned before.

One year later, in November, 1919, Father Berard has this to say: “The residence is fairly completed, barring the interior finish. We have at 1east a roof and feel at home. Through the munificence of our Father Provincial (God bless him for it!) we are in possession of a woodworking machine which will enable us to manufacture our Mission furniture.”

The very Reverend Rudolph Bonner, O.F.M., was the Father Provincial at that time. The woodworking machine is now at the St. Michael’s Mission.

Second Chapel

The first notice that we have on the construction of the second Chapel is written over the name of Father Berard, in the Fall of 1922.

“After much delay we have at last been able to start our chapel building at Lukachukai, Arizona. The base of the foundation was laid some time in June just preceding the heavy summer rains. Of course, you can not tell anything about the ‘style of architecture’ with merely the foundation of the building as a guide. Architects are an expensive institution. Therefore, we had to dispense with them as well as with blue prints and other tracings of the craft. Our drawings are a rough pencil sketch or line drawing which has the advantage of being inexpensive while doing away with much technical detail.

“The bureau of Catholic Indian Missions rendered us valuable service by obtaining permission for the purchase of government lumber at $15.00 per M., instead of the usual rate of $20.00 and $23.50 per M. This is not sized, but common lumber, 20 M. feet of which is needed for joists, rafters and sheathing. Where transportation is as high as here, requiring another $15.00 per M., we are greatly indebted to the Bureau for its timely service.

“The Indians are…heathens who do not erect places of worship, as we do, and, therefore, hardly realize that we are erecting a house which will be ‘God’s house.’ To contribute towards this end is not expected of the heathen. Thus we are obliged to seek contributions from charity, and the Indian Missionary is left to his own ingenuity in raising funds which building requires.

“To economize, we have thus far accomplished the mason work up to the floor with little expense, i.e., that of a help in mixing mortar. Brother Gervase now handles stone as well as an expert, while yours truly, (Father Berard), attends to the quarry, or hauling of sand and stone.”

In the same article Brother Berard hints at the reason for building this Chapel, even though the Chapel that was dedicated in 1912 was still standing. It seems as though there were definite rumors in circulation to the effect that the Government was to build a boarding school at Lukachukai. In that case, the older Chapel would certainly have been too small to accommodate the large school enrollment. At the present writing, March 1942, the enrollment is 140 in our Day School; Boarding School enrollments usually average around 300. The old Chapel could accommodate about 75. Up to the present, the Boarding School has never been built. The Padres have learned over a period of years that Government reports are about as reliable as the weather.

A Navajo family near Lukachukai.

A Navajo family near Lukachukai.

Father Berard continues: “While there was rumor last spring of definitely establishing the boarding school here, the appropriation was again held up. Nevertheless we decided to proceed with our building.”

This rumor must have been based on the opinion of Father Anselm Weber, O.F.M., that he had convinced a group of Congressmen touring the Reservation of the necessity of such an institution at Lukachukai. Father Anselm was invited by Mr. Paquette, the Indian Agent at Fort Defiance, to accompany their party from Gallup to Winslow, by way of Fort Defiance, Ganado, Keams Canyon and the Hopi Villages. During the stages of this trip Father Anselm rode with Congressman Carter of Oklahoma, Carl Haydn of Arizona and Benigno Hernandez of New Mexico. Concerning the outcome of this trip, Father Anselm had this to say: “I wonder if this esteemed visit will bring us profit? I hope so. At least I hope for a favorable financial appropriation towards the building of a large boarding school by our Mission at Lukachukai. On this Mr. Paquette had laid special emphasis in his report, or mine.”

The “Or mine” expression requires explanation. Since Mr. Paquette alone was obliged to prepare all the necessities for this trip of ten Congressmen over 117 miles of miserable roads, and to arrange meeting – all on short notice – he found himself so hard pressed for time that he was hardly able to draw up an official report for them on the various projects that needed attention on the Reservation. Always on the alert, Father Anselm at once offered his services, and actually drew up the report for Mr. Paquette. So, there must have been most definite promise of a boarding school.

Notwithstanding all this, the new Chapel was still a necessity. Time has proven that the old Chapel was so badly constructed as to be a public danger. It was built on almost the same lines as our Chapel at Chinle. Internally, the walls are a mass of rubble with quicksand adobe as a mortar. The foundation has no footing. With constant use, it, too, would have cracked wide open at strategic points, as has happened at Chinle. We have a hint at its inherent weakness in these words: “The interior is a quicksand-plaster finish, of which the stones and lath themselves seem ashamed, as they discard this plaster at every touch.”

The next notice that we have concerning the progress of the next building appears in the Indian Sentinel. In it Father Berard says: “After collecting enough to purchase the material for our new church here among the Navajo at Lukachukai, Arizona, Brother…and I completed all the masonry and carpenter work. Now we are confronted with the problem of finding the wherewithal to purchase the plaster. Brother is an expert with the trowel, and between, us we will do the plastering ourselves, but a sack of plaster costs $1.55. The freight on every sack is $1.25, which makes the cost of a sack to us $2.80. And we will need 175 sacks. Can you help me toward getting the $490.00 needed to buy the plaster?”

Father Berard made the following acknowledgments: “The cement check came. Thanks. This brings the total up be something like thirty-eight sacks. We are unable to do much toward the plastoring during the winter and weeping spring months, which give us a chance to gather in the sacks for the work that is to come. May I add that I need 117 sacks more?”

In another edition – “Remember the song I sang for 175 bags of plaster? Well, an Indian Sentinel reader collected $110.00. Fine! Other friends chipped in $48.80. More readers sent $27.10, and to put the climax on the campaign the pupils of a Louisville Academy got together and saved their sweets to the tune of $5.60.”

Since this is the and of our written evidence, it must be presumed that the Chapel was finished and paid for at the time of its dedication on October 14, 1928. The corner stone bears the date: 1922. The Patron Saint is St. Elizabeth of Portugal, whose feast is on the 8th of July. That same year the day school which the Indian Service had opened 12 years earlier, but closed after several years, was re-opened by Mother Catherine Drexel as a mission school and medical dispensary, a project which lasted only seven years.

The School

The school at Lukachukai was always the subject of conjecture and high hopes. It seems to have been Father Anselm’s aim to induce the government to place a school at Lukachukai, preferably a boarding school. When that seemed a reality, he had this place raised to the status of a Residence. Much to the regret to everyone, it turned out to be a day school. But the hope to have this converted into a boarding school was always kept alive. Since the Mission took over its management for a period of years, it is necessary to view its background.

The following excerpts give us the information available on this subject:

“Our Navajo Indians have entered a period of transition. Last year the Government appropriated $100,000 to erect new schools for them. $15,000 will be used to build a new school at Lukachukai. This year the Indian Appropriation Bill contains another $100,000 for the same purpose. There are no means available to establish Catholic Schools, hence we must content ourselves with doing all we can in the way of giving Catholic instructions to the pupils in Government Schools.

The old Government school near Lukachukai.

The old Government school near Lukachukai.

“A welcome addition to this settlement in the past year was the erection of a Government school building which will be opened for occupation as soon as the necessary furnishings and supplies can be shipped in. With the school right in their midst the Indians will not hesitate to bring their children as when they are obliged to take them fifty or more miles away and are thus separated from them for practically a whole year. Since this school was begun they are all, parents and children, eagerly looking forward to its formal opening, as they have long ago recognized the great advantages such a training brings to their children.” – Father Marcellus Troester, O.F.M.

“The new Government school at Lukachukai with a capacity for 80 pupils augurs well for our missionary labors in that locality.”(Franciscan missions of the Southwest, 1915 – Page 40)

“The Chin Lee school receives the exclusive attention of our Fathers in religious instruction, a condition which will also obtain at Lukachukai.” (Franciscan Missions of the Southwest – 1915 – Page 52)

“The proposed opening of the local Government school promises a fine opportunity to reach a larger number of children that might be instructed after class hours, as the school is to be a day school only.” – Father Berard Haile, O.F.M.

“Since the Government built a school a year and a half ago at Lukachukai in the immediate vicinity of our mission at the cost of $15,000 and since the Indians of that place – young and old, Catholic and Pagan – urged us to raise Lukachukai to a “Residence” and since it was impossible…to continue and enlarge the work begun in our schools, the last year’s Chapter of our Province granted our request and raised Lukachukai to a Residence.” – Father Anselm Weber, O.F.M.

“Within a month after the council at St. Isabel’s that was mentioned in the May issue, the Superintendent of the Navajo agency at Fort Defiance summoned the Lukachukai Indians to another council. The Government had determined to erect a day school in the valley in place of the usual boarding school, and Mr. Paquette was charged with the unpleasant duty of presenting this new plan to the Indians and to use all arguments within his power to induce them to be reconciled with it and to send their children to the new school.

“Two or three days passed before all the Indians could be gathered, and the council, opened April 30th, after the Sunday morning services, at which an unusually large number of Indians were present.

“Mr. Paquette ably presented his case. He told them that the school would open for a nine months’ term, from April until December, and that classes would be held daily excepting Saturdays and Sundays. The children would return to their homes in the evening and sleep there. Clothing would be given to them and lunch served to them at the noon hour. In the morning the parents would return them to the school at nine o’clock, washed and cleaned.

“The Indian is accustomed to the boarding school which provides the children with clothing, meals and lodging. This method, Mr. Paquette admitted, was the most practical and the most desirable one for them, but owing to the fact that the appropriations in money to the Indian Office had been curtailed, could not be carried out for the present. Ha said he confidently hoped that under the circumstances they would abide by this ruling of the Indian office and that he would be able to report a large enrollment.

“In a city with water works, timepieces, well-regulated homes and fixed habits it may seem unnecessary to point out such requisites as cleanliness in appearance and promptness in coming to school. Indeed, some reluctance toward a boarding school might be felt in a community of whites that is accustomed to have its children at home after school hours. Not so among the Navajos. The Lukachukai Valley proper, for instance, is some fifteen miles long by eight miles wide, in which the homes of the Navajo adjoin their small farms, while the school is located at the upper end of the valley. Water is found in several of the creeks and is led to their farms in irrigation ditches, which at the same time supply the demands of the home. The ditch is their washstand and basin, and the sun is their towel, both of which they dispense with on cloudy days, and soap will last longer if it is not used regularly. Then, too, the idea of having school children sleep at home! Not that they are particularly sensitive of where they lie down, as long as they have some sort of a roof, a sheep-pelt and blanket. What’s a school without beds? Other schools have beds for the children – what sort of school is this that gives them clean clothes in school and the dirty floor at home? At other schools the children remain all the time; they are fed, clothed, washed, looked after for ten months in the year. That’s the kind of school we want – not this one-day, one-meal affair, which makes you rouse the children in the morning, feed them, chase them off to school, trail them in the sagebrush to see that they actually arrive at the school, and meet them half-way in the evening lest they be lost. That leaves you no time for your own work! Besides, who knows the time? Clocks we have none. The sun is our guide, true enough, but this thing of nine o’clock, as the Americans count, we cannot do it. A school is a good thing and we want our children there but keep them there – keep them there; get a frame building with beds if you like, only save us this worry over the children every day; such and similar thoughts were the thoughts and opinions expressed at the council. The Agent, however, could make no definite promises, save to strongly urge and recommend a boarding school with a capacity of 125. And in view of the long distances which the children would he forced to travel, a compromise was reached, by which only such children as lived within a radius of two miles from the school should attend. That the Indians agreed to do, but again begged the agent to urge a boarding school with the Indian office so that a larger number of children might be enabled to attend.” – Father Berard Haile, O.F.M.

“Last April the Indian Agent convened a council of the Lukachukai Indians to advise with them concerning the opening of the school and for the purpose of obtaining pupils for it. The Indians were very unfavourably disposed towards the school, not for the educational facilities which it might afford, but because it promised to be a ‘one-day (Day) school’ that required their children among other disadvantages, to cover much ground in reaching the school. In consequence the Agent compromised upon a two-mile distance limit, and promised also to urge that a boarding school replace the present day-school at an early date.

“In due time some 21 children were enrolled. The first months saw some 15 or 16 children daily, to which it was my pleasure to give instructions at the chapel. In the late summer months and the early fall, however, the attendance dwindled down to three and four pupils, of which some attended alternately when two belonged to one family, others attending at their own good pleasure, still others appearing at noon hours only. The plan is not a success and should make way to a boarding school at an early date. This would prove more beneficial to employees and pupils and should satisfy the Indian who ‘delivers his child to the school, yet is forced to keep half of it at home.’ Rather than guard the child in and out of school the Indian will prefer to keep it at home entirely….” – Fr. Berard Haile, O.F.M.

“We had been expecting the Day School at Lukachukai, which is a failure, such as are all Day Schools for the Navajos, would be replaced by a Boarding School this year, but the tiresome war and the indescribable slowness with which the ‘red tape’ -enveloped Government proceeds will indeed be responsible for this delay.” – Fr. Anselm Weber, O.F.M. March 1918

“Since day schools are, and necessarily must be, failures among the Navajo, the Government has decided to replace this day school by a boarding school.” – Father Anselm Weber, O.F.M. April 1918

“The school at Lukachukai near the mountains of the same name in Arizona, is a day school, and is in operation since the spring of 1916. The two others, at Cornfields and Lukachukai, are anxiously awaiting redemption, and may be described as in the last stages of agony. Both deserve a merciful narcotic and should early be replaced by healthy boarding schools which benefit their environments.” – Father Berard Haile, O.F.M. (Indian Sentinel April 1918 – Page 28)

“The mission is within sight of the school. Thus it becomes comparatively easy to comply with existing regulations ‘that religious instruction shall be given outside of the regular class hours only’. Owing to the poor condition of the buildings and the absence of sufficient assistance, the class work was limited to half an hour in the forenoon and as much in the afternoon hours. Later on this was increased to one and a half hours before and after noon. Evan then it was difficult to observe anything like discipline to maintain the regular roll call or to hold the pupils on the grounds once the noon meal was over. In consequence, religious instructions were held before the children returned home for the evening. This failing, permission was obtained to open the daily routine with my instructions before class hours, and finally, that was changed for a brief half hour after the morning classes, say, about eleven o’clock, in the hope of catching the pupils before meals. Yet every instruction revealed a steady decrease in numbers, or at least a change in the class. The children were, therefore, urged to come regularly, not only one day but every day. The parents, too, were told that they should not use the pupils in herding, irrigating, nor for the chores at home, and that it was of the utmost importance to have the pupils attend the classes regularly. The net results of this campaign were practically nil, as the several harvests found the children at home instead of at school, the attendance dwindling down to two and three even at the noon hour. A flurry set in toward the close of the school year, when a varying attendance of thirteen to sixteen was again attained, evidently in the hope of having the pupils clothed for the winter.

“One must live on the spot to realize the adverse conditions which confront the day school plan. The employees face a long winter. We are snowed and practically ‘mired in’ from December until May, a condition that cuts off communication with the railroad during this time. Spring finds the Indians slowly returning to plow and irrigate their fields. At shearing and lambing seasons the entire family, children included, are occupied with their sheep at home or elsewhere. Early summer brings the first alfalfa crop, which again calls for all hands. Same few days will, of course, be found when the child is allowed to run off to school, because, after all, their clothes stamp them as school children, and ‘we want to have appearances.’ Suppose, however, there is a cornfield in the lower valleys where the corn matures, or that the family must be present at a singing, what will the parents than do with the school children? ‘Who will take care of our children in our absence? Your school will not do it, because they have no beds, and the rest of the people must look after their own. Thus we take them with us, and send them to school again after our return.’ Then, too, when the melons and the corn ripen the children want their share. They want a change from the daily ration of meat and beans. Let alone the piñon crop, which spells dollars and cents for every hand engaged. The family income is by no means regular, and the importance of an uninterrupted school attendance has not been grafted upon the family tradition. The family therefore, will never hesitate to sacrifice the school.

“The day school extends educational facilities, a mission it cannot fulfill among the Navajo. It becomes a happy, go-as-you-please institution, which does not benefit the children that were held at home for years in order to be enrolled here, and is a misfortune for pupils of other schools who always face the possibility of a transfer because of the very plausible reason of great distance from their alma mater.

“Let us have full charge of the child while ‘the sun and the moon shine’ – and that can be done in a boarding school only.” – Father Berard Haile, O.F.M., April 1918

Arrival of the Hospital Sisters

In 1953, the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis came to Lukachukai and opened a Medical Dispensary.

Visiting a Navajo family near Lukachukai.

Visiting a Navajo family near Lukachukai.

Lukachukai an isolated area, served only by two dirt roads which became impassable in bad weather. The nearest medical facilities were 60 miles away in Ft. Defiance. It was for this reason that Fr. Blase Brickweg, OFM, who was Pastor from 1951 to 1964, asked the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis of Springfield, Illinois, to open a clinic at the Mission. Two Sisters began making weekly visits from Gallup in April 1953 and in November of that year, were joined by two other Sisters after the first chapel had been renovated into a residence for them. In 1956 a dispensary was added to the house and in l964 a maternity clinic. In the first year of its operation, 97 babies were delivered in the clinic. Today, because of better roads and more available transportation, that number has dropped greatly. The dispensary is presently staffed by two Sister nurses and Doctor Vincent Accardi, who comes from Gallup two days each week to hold clinic.

The following letter gives a good idea of what life was like for the Hospital Sisters.

“Press Release
Prepared by: Dennis A. Stevens
Lay Apostolate, Marquette League
for Catholic Indian Missions

Works of Mercy Performed in Navajoland by the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis

“Before all things, and above all things,” says Saint Benedict, “care must be taken of the sick so that they may be served as if they were Christ in person.”

The need for a dispensary at Lukachukai has, almost since the inception of Saint Isabel Navaho Mission, been a topic of much discussion amongst the Franciscan Fathers of yesteryear. Prior to 1927 the early Fathers administered medication and gave such treatment as they were able too within certain limitations to the Navaho in this remote section of the reservation.

A Hospital Sister visiting a family near Round Rock, AZ.

A Hospital Sister visiting a family near Round Rock, AZ.

In 1927, history tells us that Father Clem Wottele, O.F.M. started the first actual dispensary with three lay persons assisting. Miss Cordelia Kell now residing in Gallup, New Mexico being the first nurse. Salaries for these workers were subsidized by the late Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People and the United States Government supplied the necessary medicines and medical equipment. Except at short intervals the government was unable to furnish medical services in this area.

In a recent interview with Father Clem, O.F.M., he stated that ‘In those days we handled over 1,000 patients a month, not including an average of 300 hogan visits per month.’

In view of the fact that the need for a Mission Dispensary was still very urgently needed, the Franciscan Fathers, in 1944 attempted to obtain the services of the Medical Missionary Sisters, however, due to existing circumstances at that time, these Sisters were unable to accept this request.

On January 10, 1949, the Franciscan Fathers at Lukachukai were fortunate in obtaining the services of Mr. John Murray, a layman from Pittsburgh, under the auspices of Bishop Espelage. Mr. Murray volunteered his services and due to his past experience in the United States Navy Medical Corps took over the operation of the dispensary where he did notable work for over a year.

As the reader can see the need for a Mission Dispensary at Lukachukai was of paramount importance to help relieve the suffering caused by poor living standards and unsanitary conditions where sickness and malnutrition was so prevalent among the small children as well as many adults. This need was further emphasized in the fact that the closest hospital is at Fort Defiance, some 60 miles south over the mountain. A road which can be only travelled during the summer months. In the winter, it is necessary to travel by another route which is over 120 miles due to heavy snow drifts which make the short route impassable.


A Hospital Sister telling a story to Navajo children after Mass.

A Hospital Sister telling a story to Navajo children after Mass.

Since there is no resident doctor at either the Mission dispensary nor at the Government Clinic, patients needing dental care, x-ray or hospitalization have to be transported either to a doctor or dentist at Chinle or taken direct to the hospital at Fort Defiance.

In 1952 the Franciscan Fathers requested that the Hospital sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis take on this extremely important work among the Navaho. Renovation of the original chapel at Saint Isabel Navaho Mission, which was built in 1910, and which is located in the rear of the Friary, was renovated and converted into a convent. On June 21, 1953, two Sisters of the above mentioned Order were transferred from Saint Francis Convent in Gallup, New Mexico where they had been doing home nursing; to the new convent located within the mission site and presently known as Immaculate Heart of Mary convent. Four months later two more Sisters were sent from the Mother House in Springfield, Illinois, making a total of four Hospital Sisters to carry on this important work.

The Dispensary soon found favor among the Navaho. There has been a constant increase of patients since its inception (See Fig. 1). During the seven remaining months of the year after the Sisters arrived in Lukachukai in 1953 there were 3, 374 patients treated. In 1954 a total of 14,987 patients were treated and during the first four months of 1955 a total of 4,809 patients have so far received treatment. These figures do not include the patients treated at our Out-mission Dispensaries in Round Rock and Tsehili, where an additional 1,940 Navaho received medicine, dressings and other treatments during 1954, nor are included 538 home or hogan visits in 1954 and 159 similar visits during the first four months of 1955.

In gaining the confidence of the Navaho, it has been possible to treat many cases in the early stages, which has resulted in lowering the mortality rate considerably and whenever possible sanitary methods have been taught in order to combat disease and sickness before inception. Not only have the Hospital Sisters helped cure and prevent to some degree their ills, but hogan visitation often results in conversions and baptism. In the Spring of 1954, for example, the Hospital Sisters were visiting one of the hogans to treat a mother who had a very bad throat infection, and after caring for her temporal suffering, she asked Father to have her grand-daughter baptized at the Church on Sunday. The Grandma and Grandpa then spoke up that they were never baptized and wanted to be.

A Hospital Sister gives a home nursing course.

A Hospital Sister gives a home nursing course.

On January 2, 1954, close to running water on the mission grounds, the first of two hogans was completed to house patients who might have to remain overnight or longer for treatment and a second one was completed in February. The logs for the second one were offered to the mission by the relatives of a woman who had died around Christmas in 1953. After they were blessed by Father they were reconstructed to be used as a guest hogan for visiting Navaho.

Not all the works of mercy performed by the Hospital Sisters deal with the human element. On one occasion a rattlesnake had bitten a dog on the jaw. The Hospital Sisters cut the fang marks to induce bleeding, however, the Sisters reported that they were really frightened for fear that the dog might bite them. Saint Francis must have smiled at their plight as he offered them his protection. Often horses are brought to the mission suffering severe incisive wounds, recently one was brought in with a very deep laceration near its hoof with severe arterial bleeding which the Sisters were able to stop by tying off the severed vessels and suturing the wound, then referring the owner to a veterinarian for further treatment as the treatment received was only of an emergency nature.

A normal week-day at the dispensary is usually as busy as any clinic in a large city general hospital, and the types of cases which come to the attention of the Sisters are legion. Sunday, however, the Dispensary is only Supposed to remain open for a limited time after Holy Mass, but when a little one is sick or anyone for that matter the dispensary door is ever open to admit them for the skilled care the Hospital Sisters may be able to offer them.

Although this article is primarily concerned with the Corporal works of Mercy performed by the Hospital Sisters in connection with the dispensary and hogan visitation, it would be unfair not to mention their part in giving religious instruction to so many adults and children. An example of the heavy schedule planned was recently published in the Mission Bulletin and included: Adult Instruction twice a week, Beginners (Kindergarten) once a week. Sewing and Religious instruction for Schoolgirls and Singing and Serving Instructions for Return Students and older children every week.

A Hospital Sister gives Catechism instruction at the Government school near Lukachukai.

A Hospital Sister gives Catechism instruction at the Government school near Lukachukai.

Work, Prayer and Sacrifice are the activities of the Hospital Sisters and their work at this dispensary can well be the answer to the prayers of the early Franciscan Fathers as Missionaries to the Navaho.”

Missions of Lukachukai

The St. Isabel Mission territory was large, almost 2,000 square miles. The missionaries visited throughout the area, instructing, baptizing, saying Mass in homes. The Mission also became the center of the community, serving not only the religious, but also the social and welfare needs of the people, needs which today are handled mainly by Tribal and Government agencies.

In time it became necessary to build out-missions to better serve the people, first at Tsaile in 1943, at Round Rock in 1957 and at Wheatfields in 1963. Until recently it was also the only Mission of any denomination in the area, with the result that all but a few people became Catholic or were on the Catholic side.

Tsaile – The dedication of the Chapel was on June 8, 1943.

St. Anne’s at Tsaile was one of the first outreach missions of Lukachukai. Religious services were held in a home in the area before 1920.On June 8, 1943, Saint Anne Navajo Mission at Tsehili was Solemnly Dedicated by His Excellency, Most Reverend Bernard T. Espelage, Bishop of Gallup. Present at the dedication was the General Superintendent of the Indian Bureau from Window Rock and the chairman of the Nayajo Tribal Council, the late Henry Chee Dodge, last of the great Navajo Chiefs, and about seven hundred local Navajos.

St. Anne Mission.

St. Anne Mission.

The Catholic community now meets in a log and adobe structure that was first dedicated in 1943. Mass is celebrated there each Sunday and Tuesday, and a CCD program is provided for the children.

Wheatfields – Mr. John O’Gorman was instrumental in building the Chapel at Wheatfields in 1962.

Our Lady of the Lake Mission.

Our Lady of the Lake Mission.

Our Lady of the Lake at Wheatfields, is a lovely hogan chapel in a beautiful natural setting near the lake. The tall pine trees frame Tsaile Peak in the background. The Wheatfields area is the “summer camp” area for most of the Tsaile people. During the summer the Chapel serves not only the needs of the local Navajo people but also the many tourists that camp at the lake. At present the Chapel is closed during the winter months. The varied parts of the St. Isabel Parish make a true witness to the Church by meeting the spiritual needs of the people and challenging them to grow in ways that are consistent and meaningful to their individual communities and cultures.

Round Rock – Mr. John O’Gorman was also instrumental in building the Chapel at Round Rock in 1957.

Our Lady of Guadalupe in Round Rock has a vibrant core community that first rebuilt its own building in 1983, and is now rebuilding the Catholic community. Lay leaders have taken pride in their own Church, a simple building, heated by a wood stove. The people provide their own Catechism classes and study together for the sacraments. They began their own prayer ministry by organizing St. Monica’s Prayer Group which meets weekly.

Round Rock Mission.

Round Rock Mission.

A point worthy of mention, is the naming of the chapel at Round Rock, ‘Our Lady of the Rock’. On the southern end of a massive. mesa-like red sandstone rock, known as Round Rock is a large hole caused by years of erosion, evolving into a phenomenal silhouette of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This unusual phenomena may be clearly seen from many points along the road to ever remind us of our Lady’s protection over Her people, the Navajo.

Liturgy at the Parish

Realizing the importance of symbolism amongst the Navajo, as witnessed in the ceremonial sand-paintings and in the rugs woven by the nimble fingers of the Navajo women, which contain many intricate patterns, the Franciscan Missionaries have used this skill of the local Navajo women in weaving rugs of a liturgical design and Navajo motif in the decoration of the church. Original designs have been completed and given to one of the Navajo artisans in order for her to weave the liturgical and Navajo design into a rug of supreme tapestry quality for use as an Antipendium on the Main Altar.

The interest shown by the Navajo in liturgical worship prompted the Franciscan Fathers at Lukachukai in 1953 to use the New Easter Vigil Service and the response was so favorable that it has been continued each successive year. Another annual devotion which met with unprecedented success is the Forty Hours Devotion, especially at the closing services when many Fathers and Brothers from other Missions on the reservation assist at Solemn Benediction.


Over a period of years there have been a fairly steady increase in Baptisms; for example, in 1952 there were seventy-nine persons who received the Sacrament of Baptism. 1953 showed an increase of forty-three or a total of one hundred and twenty-two and in 1954 there were one hundred and thirty-five persons Baptised. Since 1916 there have been a total of 1,589 Baptisms administered at Saint Isabel Navajo Mission, however, many of these Baptisms were administered in danger of death.

In Closing

St. Isabel Church at Lukachukai is the active center of the parish. Besides its full schedule of daily Mass, Sacrament programs, CCD classes, and youth choir, it serves as host to many “whole parish” activities. Yet, the parish is really made up of several distinct communities. Three Mission-Chapels are also served as part of its ministry. These chapels mark the principle character of the parish: reaching out to share our faith.


Photo sources:

Library of Congress

Franciscan Missions of the Southwest

Diocesan Archives