“If I have my wish, I’ll never be a pastor in Cincinnati.” These are the words Fr. Blane Grein said to his parents after his ordination, sixty years ago.
It’s not that Fr. Grein didn’t love his family, but he felt called to serve in Franciscan missions, thanks in large part to the influence of his Franciscan uncle.
“Just a few weeks before I was ordained, I wrote a formal letter to our provincial stating that if they saw fit and I was worthy enough, I’d be willing to go to our foreign missions in the Philippines,” Fr. Grein recalls. “And it happened – about 58 years of my priestly life, I’ve been in the missions.”
As it happened, most of those 58 years have been spent right here in the Diocese of Gallup, in Zuni, Chinle, and Ft. Defiance.
Along with the first hints of an inclination toward a vocation, his uncle influenced him in other ways – especially with advice about serving in other countries and cultures.
“He said ‘whenever you go to an assignment, for a year, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.’ And I’ve tried to observe that. For a year – after that you know a little bit more, and people you can talk to about making changes.”
This spirit of listening and learning was instrumental in helping Fr. Grein oversee the erecting of the hogan-shaped Catholic Church in Chinle, AZ.
“[It’s] is a result of that, of listening, sitting down with elders, Navajo people, planning that church, being open to their ideas and respect for their ways. Those things appeal to me – I didn’t say ‘well I’m a priest, I’m in charge here, you’re going to do it my way’”, Fr. Grein said. “I don’t know anything about this culture until I talk to people, observe things, ask questions. And then, you see the value and you see the beauty in the ways of the people you’re ministering with, that their culture is blessed also.”
During his ministry in Chinle, Fr. Blane met James Hoch, a member of one of the many mission trips which would visit the Navajo Nation.
“I like to say I was Father’s favorite Methodist! I think we bonded because I liked watching his Ohio State football, basketball, anything that was on TV,” Hoch wrote. “My favorite story I tell folks who ask about how a Catholic Parish survives in the Navajo Nation, with the differences in the beliefs, is that his answer was that he concentrated on all the similarities (and there are many) between the belief systems rather than on the differences.”
Fr. Grein now lives in Ft. Defiance but doesn’t hesitate to make the journey back to Chinle when needed.
Sr. Theresa Chato, who has also served with Fr. Grein at Chinle, describes him again and again as “generous”, noting that he has never hesitated to travel to hold a burial, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when indoor funerals were forbidden.
“This was home to him, he didn’t feel he was ‘out in the boonies’, as people would say.”
Earlier in August, parishioners at Fr. Defiance gathered to celebrate Fr. Grein’s 60th anniversary, marking the occasion with a Catholic and Navajo blessing and an abundance of food.
“The Lord even blessed the occasion by having rain!” Fr. Grein said.
To this day, he still feels strongly about the words he spoke to his parents, all those years ago.
“I think I have learned so many things from the Filipinos, the Zunis, the Navajos, Jamaicans, and I find myself really blessed in my 60 years of ministry. I enjoyed my time at every assignment I had, and I learned a lot from the culture that I was working with.”
Featured photo: Fr. Grein greets parishioners outside the hogan church in Chinle, AZ. Courtesy of James Hoch.