Ft. Defiance Parishioners, Clergy Plan Church’s 100 Year Celebration

"St. Katharine Drexel" waves to the crowd.

Correction: The wrong prayer was included in the story earlier. The correct Anniversary Prayer by Fr. Schneider is now posted.

If you go:

Anniversary Mass and Celebration
Where: Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, 173 Main St. Ft Defiance AZ
When: 11:00 am, Thanksgiving Day, November 26

In 1868, after the Long Walk and relocation of the Navajo to Ft. Sumner, the tribe was returned to its ancestral land, and the old military installation at Ft. Defiance, Arizona designated as the administrative center for the U.S. Government’s oversight of the Navajo people.

Thirty years later, the Franciscans sent four friars into the area to learn about the culture and language of the Navajo people. Fr. Berard Haile undertook a scientific study of the beliefs and customs of the tribe, along with an effort to learn the Navajo language and capture it in writing.Frs. Leopold Ostermann and Anselm Weber soon began to teach catechism classes to the children at the local government boarding school.

One layman was instrumental in these early efforts. Peter Paquette was at the time the superintendent of the boarding schools in Ft. Defiance, and a Catholic. In order to teach the children and meet with local families, the Franciscans had to travel each week to and from St. Michaels. Anyone wishing to receive the Sacraments or attend Mass had to travel 8 miles each way from Ft. Defiance to St. Michaels. As there was no church or other religious building available at the time, Mr. Paquette made his government buildings available to the friars for their evangelization efforts.

Children from Ft. Defiance and Franciscan friars.
Children from Ft. Defiance and Franciscan friars.

By 1912, the number of people from the Ft. Defiance area who wished to be baptized reached into the hundreds, along with a class of 89 confirmation candidates. Transporting people back and forth was difficult, and the need for a church at Ft. Defiance was recognized.

Fr. Weber by that time had been in the process of obtaining land from the Santa Fe Railway Pacific Company, and when it was acquired the people began the process of building the church. It was named Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1915.

The original stained glass windows are still a modern feature, along with the names of the original donors. Some of those names include many local Navajo people and their children, who proudly contributed to the building of their own church.

One of the original stained glass windows at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.
One of the original stained glass windows at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.

100 Year Anniversary

The Navajo parishioners at Ft. Defiance are just as proud of their church now as they were a century ago. For several years, a committee has been planning the 100 year anniversary celebration, with excitement at an all-time high now that the anniversary is only weeks away. The anniversary Mass will be celebrated on Thanksgiving Day by Bishop Wall, with a turkey dinner to follow in the parish hall.

Fr. Gilbert Schneider, pastor at Ft. Defiance, composed a special anniversary prayer with input from the committee. The people of the church have since used the prayer at every staff meeting and once a month during Mass.

“It draws from parts of both Native and Catholic spirituality,” Fr. Schneider said. “And of course we want to emphasize ancestry – give thanks for those who brought us to this point, both Native people and the superintendent of the boarding school.”

We thank you God our Father for this special year of grace as we prepare for the 100th anniversary of our church. We ask you to now strengthen us to continue to build our community of faith. May we continue to be nourished by your Spirit. We are so grateful for the beauty of our church, our worship space. We give thanks each time we come together here in our church as your family, the People of God. May this year of preparation be truly a year of grace and blessing as we look forward to our 100th Jubilee Celebration. We unite together as one parish family. Please renew us with the blessings of peace, joy, and hope. Gift those who have gone before us with eternal life with You. Guide us as we continue the faith journey they have passed on to us. Amen.

– Anniversary prayer by Fr. Gilbert Schneider

Some of the most passionate members of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament belong to the local Kateri Circle. After a long fundraising effort, the members of the circle obtained a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and a shrine to the saint was dedicated and blessed after Mass on October 4.

Marie Allen, a longtime member of both the parish and the circle, wrote of the experience.

“At last we have a St. Kateri Tekakwitha statue. Brother John and Ben Laughing constructed the shrine with the design and site selection done by Marie Allen and other Circle members. The plan was to establish the shrine during the Centennial Year of the church. The presence of the shrine is a reminder of the blessings we receive through St. Kateri.”

Allen also noted that while the Kateri Circle was raising the funds to purchase the statue, the members also contributed to the support of local Navajo elders, Thanksgiving meals for jail inmates, and a part in the movie In Her Footsteps, which tells the story of St. Kateri.

Sr. Mary Hottenroth has lived and worked at Ft. Defiance for fifteen years. In that time, she’s helped to build and maintain several ministries, such as two separate choirs, potlucks and religious activities for families, and an inter-generational ministry, where elders, parents, and children learn about the Faith together.

Each of these ministries have contributed to the anniversary festivities, and a group of parishioners created a float to participate in the 2015 Navajo Nation fair. They chose for their theme “Care of Our Common Home”, in keeping with both the Pope’s encyclical and the prayer by Fr. Schneider.

“We joyfully evangelized by pulling our float three miles down highway 264 in the midst of approximately 40,000 parade watchers,” Sr. Hottenroth said. “The float was enthusiastically prepared by parish members under the direction of Maria and David Tsosie. The picture of the float speaks for itself demonstrating the creative artistry of parishioners and their care for the earth – ‘Beauty is Our Tradition. Conservation is Our Mission.’ They recycled plastic bottles and ‘grew’ them into beautiful flowers!”

Marie Allen dressed in the float as Mother Katharine Drexel, along with two high-schoolers dressed as Franciscans and a little girl as St. Kateri. Other volunteers distributed prayer cards and candy along the parade route.

In his time at Ft. Defiance, Fr. Schneider reflected on how the ministry and faith of the people of the parish has grown, and now reached a high point in the weeks before the anniversary.

“People are taking hold and getting involved. It’s especially obvious during the Jubilee, when there’s so much to do, that they do all the work. It’s reawakened our pride. They really got into the float for the Navajo Nation Fair – it was a real evangelization effort on their part.”

He hopes that the sense of community and friendship will remain even after the anniversary celebrations, and that the new shrine and the anniversary prayer will strengthen the faith of the local families.

“We want to make this a place for retreat and a reflective place for people,” Fr. Schneider said. “Prayer is what we need, because this celebration is a bold undertaking.”


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