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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

San Fidel School Celebrates 100 Years of Catholic and Indigenous Tradition

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Suzanne Hammons
Suzanne Hammonshttp://dioceseofgallup.org
Suzanne Hammons is the editor of the Voice of the Southwest and the media coordinator for the Diocese of Gallup. A graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, she joined the Diocesan staff in 2012.

When Franciscan Friars first came to San Fidel, NM, they likely hoped the church and school they established, both named after St. Joseph, would last for the next 100 years. And while the church is now inactive, the school is still going strong, thanks to the dedicated efforts of teachers, administrators, and the communities it serves.

Nestled in the shadow of Mt. Taylor about 20 miles east of Grants, the church at San Fidel was once the primary parish for the Franciscans, from which they also administered to missions in Grants, Acoma, Laguna, and surrounding villages. The school at San Fidel was for a time a public school, until the 1951 New Mexico Supreme Court Case Zellers v. Huff upheld a ruling against clergy and religious sisters teaching in public schools. From that time until now, St. Joseph has served as a parochial Catholic school.

“It is amazing that St. Joseph’s has survived a myriad of storms over the years, especially in light of how many Catholic schools across the nation have closed during the past decade,” principal Antonio Trujillo wrote in his 2023 annual report. “This shows the resilience of our parents, staff and benefactors who believe in the mission of St. Joseph School to bring children to Jesus and in turn bring them to experience the beacons of light they are to the world.”

Most of the students and staff are from the nearby Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna. Trujillo told The Voice of the Southwest that one of the most persistent challenges for the school has been enrollment rates, “which is indicative of basically where we’re going again on a national, state, and regional level – birth rates have gone down, especially among the Pueblos. And the other part is it’s a tough school, you know. It’s not a good fit for a lot of the students because of the expectations, which are very high.”

Many of the students who do graduate from St. Joseph Mission School continue to perform well academically in high school and college. One alumna is now using her experience there and in public high school to impact thousands of New Mexico students.

KatieAnn Juanico currently serves as the assistant Secretary for Indian Education for the state of New Mexico. She attended St. Joseph from kindergarten through the sixth grade and gave the keynote address at the school’s 100th anniversary gala on September 16, 2023.

“I had not stepped back at the school for quite some time – I want to say 20-plus years. But the minute I walked onto that campus, it was a sense of welcome, and I knew where everything was. Everything looked the same,” Juanico says. “I want to acknowledge that that sense of community was there. I also want to acknowledge my classmates who I see, you know, through social media, who are making huge impacts as well. And I know that came from St. Joseph Mission School because we were such a small class, I think 10 of us!”

Juanico credits her parents, Marietta and Melvin, for their involvement in their children’s education.

“Part of the reason my sister, my brother, and I attended St. Joseph Mission School was because of my parents’ employment. My dad was a bus driver and also the maintenance facilities person all the way through when I was in sixth grade,” she recalls.

“And then my mom was a bus driver and also a teacher at the school. And so I never forget to acknowledge the fact that my parents were working so that my brother, my sister, and I could go to the Catholic School and were having the tuition payments deducted from their paychecks.”

For Trujillo, his staff, and supporters, the school’s embrace of both Catholic religious teaching and Pueblo culture and tradition is essential.

“90 percent of our staff and faculty are from the community. We respect their traditional ways and they see value of our Catholic ways that fit their cultural traditions,” Trujillo says.

“One of the things that is a result of combining both traditions, sharing and evangelizing our love of God, is that the kids are just filled with wonder and joy. And they get to be kids. And when they get to be kids, they get to learn. And when they get to learn, they get enthusiastic to face the challenges that come in anyone’s life. And so all we can try to do is foster an environment of the sacred, so that the secular can be lived out.”

Juanico recalls receiving her First Communion at St. Joseph School, learning her prayers, and discovering a love of reading.

“I learned another support system of a higher power. You know, I’ve learned that at home, with my cultural knowledge, that we pray to the sun as it rises and as it settles for the day and ask for good intentions for the next day. But going to St. Joseph’s School and learning my prayers in a Catholic way solidified that we’re not alone, and in times of need, we have someone to turn to or talk to when we need it.”

Although there are no longer any friars at the school, Trujillo credits the Franciscan tradition as an inspiration and guide for his administration – with some of his own life lessons added in.

“I’ve been an advocate of the ‘5 truths of life’, and that is: life is unfair, life is hard, we’re not the center of life, we have no control over life except for our own decisions, and life is short,” he says. “And if we can get the kids to understand that, then we can give them the tools to face it, and to become filled with courage. And to have the sense of the Holy Spirit that guides us through it.”

Cover photo: Staff and students celebrate “Rock Your Mocs Day”. Image courtesy of St. Joseph Mission School.

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