Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Catholic Church in Tuba City

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One of the first non-Native men to make contact with the tribes near what is now Tuba City was the Franciscan priest Francisco Tomas Garces. In 1776, the same year that the United States officially declared independence from Great Britain, Fr. Garces noted that the Arizona Native Americans he encountered were living in thriving communities of their own, raising families and growing crops.

In the 1870s, a heavy Mormon presence in the area led to one of the Hopi leaders, Tuuvi, converting to Mormonism. Tuba City, named for Tuuvi, was settled by Mormons soon after.

The Diocese of Tucson in January of 1924 received from the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company of Flagstaff about one acre of land at Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. This land was “to be used solely and exclusively for Catholic Mission purposes.”

For many years no priest was available to take care of this western section of the Reservation. In 1951 a group of Catholic people from Tuba City, both Indian and non-Indian, journeyed to St. Joseph Mission, Keams Canyon, to petition that a priest go to Tuba City at regular intervals for Sunday Mass. The matter was turned over to St. Michael’s Mission, headquarters for the reservation work. For two years a priest from St. Michael’s went to Tuba City, a distance of 160 miles, one Sunday each month.

Then in July of 1955 the Fathers at St. Joseph Mission, Keams Canyon, assumed the responsibility of caring for Tuba City and Mass was offered at Tuba City on two Sundays of each month.

The first resident priest for Tuba City was assigned in July of 1956 – Father Flann O’Neil, C.F.M. He lived in a house trailer and offered Holy Mass each Sunday in the Community Center. Plans were being formed for the construction of a church and a rectory. Father Flann conducted instruction classes each week for the Catholic children in the Government boarding school and those in the public school. He also traveled to outlying Government boarding schools each week to instruct the Catholic children attending these schools.

From 1956 – 1966 Tuba City became a “boomtown”, due to the opening of a large uranium mill nearby. Because of the rapid growth of the town – mostly Government expansion of its facilities and personnel – the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company were impelled to contact Father Flann in April of 1959 with the offer of a trade in Church property. Babbitt Brothers were thinking of possible expansion of their business interests and wanted the Church property back (the property was situated on the main road, a bit northeast of Tuba Trading Post). They suggested that Father Flann look over their vacant property and choose a new site for the proposed church.

After much transaction the trade in property was finally effected. The former church property was deeded back to Babbitt Brothers in October, 1959, in exchange for a new site of approximately three acres – about 1000 feet west of Tuba Trading Post – with, of course, the guaranteed use of an access road. His Excellency, Bishop Bernard Espelage, with the Babbitt Brothers, handled the official transaction.

St. Jude Thaddeus, the Apostle, was designated as the patron.

Ground was broken for the new church building May 51, 1960. Since the church was built greatly by volunteer labor, the construction went on slowly for more than a year.

The erection of the Parish of St. Jude was effected June 6, 1961 and Father Flann was appointed its first pastor. The rectory was constructed in 1965 and in 1971 the parish hall was completed, built by the Franciscan Brothers’ work crew.

Fr. Flann served Navajo, Hopi, Anglo and Spanish people of the areas of Tuba City and Kayenta until 1969 when he moved to another newly established parish Church at Kayenta.

Fr. Lawrence Schreiber, OFM succeeded him at St. Jude and served from 1969 to 1976. During this time a Parish Hall with gym and classrooms for CCD was built by the Franciscan Brothers’ work crew. The parishioners of St. Jude have used these fine facilities to develop a close family spirit, both religious and social.

The Vincentian Fathers assumed responsibility for the parish in 1994, when Fathers Louis Franz, CM, and Mark Ford, CM, arrived. They continue to oversee St. Jude to this day.

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