Early Days

The first actual missionary work undertaken among the Hopi was in 1629, on August 20th of which year Francisco de Porras, Andres Gutierrez, Cristobal de la Concepcion, and Francisco de San Buenaventura, escorted by twelve soldiers, reached Awatobi, where the Mission of San Bernardo was founded in honor of the day, followed by the establishments of missions also at Walpi, Shongopovi, Mishongnovi, and Oraibi.


All the Hopi missions seem to have led a precarious existence until 1680, when in the general Pueblo revolt of that year four resident missionaries were killed and the churches destroyed. From that point on no attempt was made to reestablish and of the missions except the one at Awatobi in 1700, which so incensed the other Hopi that they fell upon it in the night, killing many of its people and compelling its permanent abandonment.

Catholicism Returns

The current history of the church on the Reservation started with Mother Katherine Drexel, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who had been searching for missionaries to settle and minister to the Navajos in Arizona. She was able to persuade Fr. Godfrey Schilling, OFM of the Cincinnati Province, with the assistance of Monsignor Joseph Stephen (the Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions), that this missionary effort would be to the benefit of both the Navajo People and the friars, and in 1898 the first group of Franciscans made their way to St. Michaels.

The mission at Keams is the only Navajo mission on the Hopi Reservation. This sounds a little confusing, and it is. The confusion has its roots in the executive order of President Arthur in 1882 by which 2.5 million acres of land were set aside “for Hopi and other Indians.” By 1900 this land was completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. In the mid 1950’s the Navajos were using almost four-fifths of this land, while the Hopis were claiming all of it. The dispute led to a special act of Congress which set up a three-judge court to decide the issue. Its decision in 1962 established for the first time a reservation for the exclusive use of the Hopi Tribe. Keams Canyon, which is named for Thomas Varker Keam who settled there as a trader in 1878, is within this district. The remainder of the 1882 reservation was set up as a joint-use area. This 1962 decision had very little immediate effect and has not provided a final solution. This explains how Keams Canyon became part of the exclusive Hopi Reservation. But why St. Joseph Mission is considered basically a Navajo mission is a longer story.

The Hopi Tribe has resisted outside influence throughout recorded history. In 1633 Father Francisco de Porras was poisoned. In the general Pueblo revolt of 1680 four Franciscan Hopi missionaries lost their lives. Some 20 years later a group from the other Hopi villages destroyed the village of Awatobi because of the growing outside influence there.

The federal government has met similar opposition from the Hopis. In 1899 federal troops were needed to enforce sanitation and quarantine regulations during a smallpox epidemic. Again in 1906 troops were used to bring 83 children in to the Keams Canyon school.

During these same years Father Anselm Weber was investigating the possibility of a mission to the Hopis. He attended the snake dances in 1899 and was able to offer Mass at Sitschomovi on the first Hopi mesa. Bishop Granjon on on his first visit to St. Michaels in 1904 spent 12 days visiting the Hopi villages. The Bishop suggested that the pueblo-dwelling Hopi would offer a more responsive mission field. Fr. Anselm disagreed. From his exploratory trips he felt the Hopis simply wanted no communication with whites – missionaries, government agents, teachers, or anyone who might interfere with the tight native culture pattern of the Hopi community. He was quite surprised when he received word in 1905 that the Provincial and Bishop had worked out an agreement for the Cincinnati Franciscans to accept the Hopi mission.

Fr. Anselm attempted to obtain a mission site, but the Hopis would not give their consent. When troops were used in 1906 to take children by force to the government school, Fr. Anselm tried in vain to persuade the Hopi leaders to send some children to St. Michaels as a voluntary alternative. While Fr. Anselm was making a final attempt in 1909 to obtain a mission site, several Protestant missionaries were forced to leave their Hopi missions. When the Hopi Agent objected to this action, the Hopi chief brought out the tongue of an ancient bell used by the early friars and warned that “this tongue is all of their talk that remains.” Finally Bishop Granjon reconciled himself to the realities of the Hopi situation as faced by Fr. Anselm.

The Keams Canyon Trading Post, circa 1880.

The Keams Canyon Trading Post, circa 1880.

As the years went on the government school at Keams for the Hopi Indians did not fare so well and finally was closed. About 1923 it was decided to remodel the buildings and reopen them as a boarding school for the Navajo Indians living on the Hopi Reservation. Father Marcellus Troester during 1922 and ’23 spent many weeks in the area. He obtained the written permission of the parents for the Catholic instruction of the Navajo children who were to attend the Keams Canyon school.

On May 4, 1926, a site for a mission site at Keams Canyon was approved to minister to Catholics in the area and to the Navajo children in the Boarding School. In 1926 Father Mathias Heile was assigned to begin the work at Keams Canyon from St. Michaels.

First Christmas at Keams Canyon Mission

Keams Canyon was a hostile environment tor Father Mathias Heile in 1926 when he began Catholic instructions for the Navajo children attending school there. He was teaching Navajos who lived and were in school on the Hopi reservation. In September he held the first instruction at the school, but only seven frightened children attended. The Baptist missionaries had told the children that terrible things awaited them as Catholics. It was not until the events of Christmas 1926 that Fr. Mathias began to make a dent in the armor of bigotry and intolerance.

He might have given up except tor the support of two Catholic teachers at the school, Misses Agnes and Mamie McEntree. These two devoted Catholic teachers were the constant support of the early friars. They devoted much time and effort in helping the Church even though it caused them much difficulty with some of their bigoted neighbors. Through the efforts of the Misses McEntee the Knights of Columbus of Joplin, Missouri, had sent Christmas gifts for the school children. A doll was sent to each Indian girl attending school and a mechanical toy was given to each boy. Bishop Tief of Concordia, Kansas, sent a generous check for candy, nuts and fruit.

But when a heavy snow came on December 22nd, Fr. Mathias and the gifts were at St. Michaels, 80 miles away across the mountain. The deep snow made using the car out of the question. The school Sisters had a light-weight canvas-covered wagon which, because of its color, was named “Black Maria”. Years later later Fr. Mathias wrote that when all was ready on the morning of the 23rd:

“Black Maria, pulled by a team of husky mules, with Dan Kinlichini (his interpreter) and myself wrapped in blankets, was on its way. Deep snow made it impossible to see the road, but frequent journeying made certain landmarks our guides as we lurched onward. In low places on the top of the mountain the snow was so deep that the axles of the high-wheeled wagon were scraping the surface…About 2:30 the next morning we located the remains of an old hut that could provide some shelter and, since our mules had nearly reached the point of exhaustion we were forced to camp for the night. Camping is usually considered something romantic, but when the thermometer slides down to 26 below zero, most of the thrills vanish. We brushed aside the snow so that we could make a fire from wood, the moist parts of which we had first to remove. Numb from the cold as we were and dog tired from huddling in the wagon in an effort to keep warm, that night remains in my memory as the coldest and longest one in my life. It was too cold even to sleep, but we could at least stretch out on some sheep pelts and wait tor dawn. Twenty hours on the road and less than fifty miles of distance covered. Shortly after 5:00 pm we crunched into Keams Canyon and no visitors had ever received a warmer welcome. We were the first persons coming from the outside world: not even the mail had been able to reach the snowbound people for a week.”

"Black Maria", being pulled through the snow.

“Black Maria”, being pulled through the snow.

“The next morning the assembly hall was crowded with school children and parents for the Christmas Mass. For most of the children the dolls and toys given out after Mass were their only Christmas gifts. There was candy, nuts and fruit for all.

In the early afternoon there was a happy gathering of all the government employees at the Agency mess for the festive Christmas dinner. Although most of the employees attended the Baptist Church, Fr. Mathias was asked to say grace. He wrote: “This Christmas celebration helped to a great extent in breaking down the barrier of misunderstanding and in forming friendships that last to this day.” After another day’s rest, Fr. Mathias and Dan set out for St. Michaels. He rejoiced that they made fairly good time. “Our long-eared friends instinctively knew that we were headed towards home and needed no urging. Thus despite the deep snow, we averaged nearly three miles an hour!”

The missionary house at Keams Canyon.

The missionary house at Keams Canyon.

Church is Built

A few days after his return Fr. Mathias learned of the approval of our mission site “for Navajo Indians on the Hopi Reservation” by the department of the Interior on December 10, 1926. The petition had been submitted by Fr. Jerome Hesse, the superior at St. Michaels, in May after he and Fr. Emanuel Trockur had made several trips into the area to visit the Navajo people who wanted to sign the request. An attempt was made by the Baptist mission which had been located at Keams for 25 years to block our petition for a mission site. At a meeting called by the Agent in June the Hopi Indians expressed their unanimous opposition to a Catholic mission on their reservation. “It was on this occasion,” Fr. Emanuel attests, “that the preacher, permitting his fanaticism and hatred to burst out in a volcano of unholy anger and abuse, accused us of having obtained thumbprints from the Indians under false pretenses.” But Fr. Jerome patiently denied this charge and pointed out to the Hopis that we were coming to Keams at the request of and to care for the Navajo Indians, not the Hopis. At this time the school at the agency at Keams Canyon was for Navajo pupils only. To show that the accusation of the preacher was unfounded and to convince Washington that the Navajos really were interested in this project, 250 additional signatures were obtained for our petition. Still the matter was not settled until December, about four months longer than was usual at that time.

Building could not begin until warm weather came. It was decided to build of stone which was readily available. The original plans called for a chapel and separate living quarters, but at the insistence of the Provincial it was changed to a combination building, 70’ by 30’, with the living quarters on the ground floor and the chapel above.

On May 4, 1927 the project began with the erection of an 11’ by 18’ frame shack which was used as living quarters during construction. It received the name “Chicken Coop” because the lumber used in it was taken from a chicken coop at St. Michaels School.

The church at Keams Canyon.

The church at Keams Canyon.

By January 1928 the four stone walls were erected and the roof was ready for shingles. Throughout this school year Mass was said in the assembly hall and Fr. Mathias lived in the Chicken Coop. The services of Brother Gervase Thuemmel were obtained for the summer to supervise the construction of the concrete stairway and stone work at the entrance of the church. On October 21, 1928 the chapel was completed and dedicated, but Father could not move into the living quarters until December 26th.

It became a parish at this time and the pastor in residence was Father Mathias Haile, OFM. In October 1931 Fr. Winfrid Stauble came to Keams Canyon and served St. Joseph Mission for the next 11 years, during which time he cared also for Greasewood and Piñon. Stone chapels with small rooms for the priest to stay overnight were built at both these places in the mid-30’s. Fr. Winfrid’s parents, Charles and Catherine Stauble, came to assist him at Keams Canyon in 1933. In 1935 Miss Pauline Martinez began her 16 years of service to St. Joseph Mission.

It was through contact with the children at the Keams Canyon Boarding School that Fr. Winfrid met Native Americans living in the Piñon district, who for several years longed for a priest to live among them. Stone chapels with small rooms for the priest to stay overnight were built at both these places in the mid 1930’s. In 1942, a Japanese internment camp was built at Leupp and this was included on the priest’s rounds, along with Greasewood, Piñon, Cornfields, Steamboat, the Lagunas at Winslow, White Cone and Low Mountain. The priest at Keams Canyon was also saying Mass on First Mesa. In 1943, the Catholic residents of Tuba City expressed a need tor a priest to say Mass tor them, and this became the responsibility of the priest at Keams Canyon in 1945.

1945 – A Memoir of Activity

Fr. Silverius Meyer wrote extensively of his time at Keams Canyon, and in a letter to a friend recalled the year of 1945.

“God has indeed blessed this Mission. and the past year has been a happy and successful one. Twenty Navaho Indian boys and girls made their First Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.

“Five days later the Most Rev. Bernard Espelage, Bishop of Gallup, stopped here and confirmed 35 Indian children.

“On May 20, all the Catholic Indian children who attend the Government School enjoyed a picnic. When asked beforehand what they wanted to eat, they did not ask for hot dogs and soda pop. They wanted of their home diet: mutton, beans, chili, fried bread and coffee. They enjoyed this and it was a contented bunch which came back that evening, tired and sleepy, but very happy.

“November 26 was a red-letter day for St. Joseph Mission, for on that day I obtained permission from my superiors to buy a Jeep. For a long time we have needed a new and sturdier car to battle mountainous roads. During the rainy season there is mud to contend with. Part of our territory has many sandy stretches. There are places which we are unable to visit at regular intervals because the high-centered wagon tracks, narrow trails, and sage-filled fields present just too many hazards for a touring car. Now through the generosity of Father Cullen and the Marquette League, the need for a Jeep will be met.

“This year the Indians of the four localities we visit arranged their own with the help of the traders, teachers, and missionary. Everyone contributed something: labor, gifts, food.

“So it was that I celebrated four Christmasses this year. On Wednesday, the nineteenth, I was at Steamboat Canyon; then, on Thursday, in Cornfields; Friday in Greasewood. That meant special gifts for 125 school children who receive Catholic instructions weekly in these government day-schools. There were also apples, candy, and clothing for their relatives and friends.

“The largest gathering was at my most remote mission, Pinyon. I reserved Christmas Day for them, and was rewarded by meeting almost 800 Navajos who combined a tribal meeting with their celebration of Christmas and stayed for two days! I was able to contribute much toward their Christmas dinner – the customary meal of native mutton stew, beans, fried bread, and coffee. Everything was cooked in the open over fire pits – and twelve inches of snow all around. But how good everything tasted!

“I went to Pinyon on Christmas Eve. It was a grinding trip all the way through the snow, slush, and cold for 55 miles. It took more than six hours each way. Going up I had to break a trail through falling snow for the last fifteen miles of the trip.

Children with their Christmas gifts.

Children with their Christmas gifts.

“But it was worth all the inconvenience and effort it cost. All of them assisted at the Mass I offered for my benefactors on Christmas morning. There was really great danger of my being snow-bound in Pinyon, so I left there about four o’clock and arrived in Keams again about ten o’clock Christmas night.

“The children at Keams say they enjoyed a very happy Christmas. They were dismissed from school on Friday and received their gifts before going home. Unfortunately, the severe cold and snow kept many of them from returning Christmas day, for most of them must ride a full day by horse and wagon between here and their homes.

“The ten days before Christmas were filled with feverish activity. We had had our first heavy snow, and the mail and express were both held up and reached us at the last minute. We prepared a total of 250 packages for school children alone. Each bundle contained towel, soap, and wash cloth; crayons, marbles, and a toy; a piece of winter clothing, comb or ribbon; a paint, story, or picture-book, and a bit of candy.

“Then there were 500 bags of pop-corn with candy for the adults and other children who came to Keams. I gave some potatoes, onions, beans, and coffee to the four community dinners in the outlying missions, and saw that every one in those places got at least an apple and some candy.”

Navajos and World War 2

Fr. Meyer also wrote of the service of many of his Native friends during the Second World War:

“In each of my previous News-letters I have told you news and facts about our Navaho Indian boys and their contributions to the war effort. Until the end of the war there were 3,000 Navaho men in the Armed Forces and approximately 10,000 at work.

“How grief can be changed to pride among Navaho Indians by stories of unusual courage was demonstrated last month at the presentation of posthumous awards to the parents of two of our former school boys. As the achievements of these two brave boys were recited, evidence of pride slowly took the place of grief on the faces of the parents and relatives.

“John King Judy was born on December 20, 1921. and baptized on April 25, 1933. He attended the Keams Canyon boarding school for eight years, then later went to Ft. Wingate Indian School. In 1940, when he was 17 years old, he ran away from the school to enlist with the “Bushmasters,” 158th Infantry, and went with them through New Guinea and other Pacific Islands to the Philippines. In the main drive on Manila in January of this year, Pvt. Judy’s Company was held up by heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. Without orders to do so, John King Judy advanced alone up a steep slope until he was in a position to kill a sniper whose field of fire dominated the advance, and then went on to kill another sniper equally well situated. While he was trying for another position to clear the way for the advance of his company, Pvt. Judy was hit by a knee-mortar shell and was so seriously wounded that he died on the way to the hospital. For performing this extraordinary act of gallantry in Luzon, the U. S. Army awarded the Silver Star Medal to Frank Cowboy, father of John King Judy.

“Walter Julian Nelson was born near Keams Canyon on February 2, 1920, and was baptized here on May 30, 1928. There are many phases in his life parallel to those of John King Judy, for Walter also attended the school here in Keams and later went to Fort Wingate. In 1940, at the age of 19, h enlisted with the 158th Infantry ‘Bushmasters’ and was probably in the all-Indian company. Mr. and Mrs. Fred Nelson, parents of Pfc. Walter Nelson, received the Air Medal awarded posthumously to their son for gallantry in action. The citation reads: ‘For meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight at Leyte, Philippine Islands, from Nov. 19, to Dec. 2, 1944. Pfc. Nelson was killed when he voluntarily returned to a heavily fortified enemy sector to drop vital supplies to our forces. By his courageous action and devotion to duty he contributed greatly to the success of this operation.’

“Although the majority of Navaho Indians could speak and understand little English when they entered the military services, they are now returning with an excellent command of the language. They have developed a bearing of self-confidence which will be of great benefit to the individuals and the tribe as a whole in the years to come.”


Note: the history here is taken from Diocesan archives, a brief history complied by Fr. Clay Kilburn, and the book Franciscan Missions of the Southwest.

Images are taken from Diocesan archives and Wikipedia Commons.