The following is taken from a history booklet written by Fr. John Mittelstadt, OFM, for the 75th anniversary of the Tohatchi parish.
Tohatchi is a Navajo word meaning “where the water is scratched out.” It was chosen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the site of the second boarding school for the Navajos in 1895. it is the only known area where the elders of the Navajos went to St. Michael Mission and requested the Franciscans to come in order to instruct their children in the Catholic ways. There was a big interest in the Catholic Church due to the famous Chief Manuelito whose grave is in Coyote Canyon.
According to his descendants, strong Catholics, Manuelito favored the Catholic Church in the 1870’s. He thought the best of the Navajo culture and spirituality would be preserved by the Church. In 1914 only 25 children enrolled in the boarding school and every student registered on the Catholic side. Father Berard Haile OFM came weekly for instructions – mostly on horse-back.
The Builder Arrives
Father Marcellus Troester OFM replaced him in August of 1915. Baptisms and First Communions were held for the ﬁrst time at Tohatchi School on April 25, 1915. There were soon 50 under instruction. Many of these students were direct Manuelito. Father Marcellus soon realized the difﬁculties of coming over the mountain from St. Michael Mission each week.
On June 23, 1916, a meeting of the Navajo elders was held and 75 gave consent for a land site for a church. He began begging funds and drawing up plans for a wooden frame church which included a sacristy, a small living quarters in the rear. Overall it measured 76 by 32 feet. Construction began in the fall of 1918. Father Marcellus lived in a small tent-house near the building site.
The boarding school kept growing in enrollment as did the Catholic community. On June 9, 1920, Archbishop Albert T. Daeger, OFM, came from Santa Fe to dedicate the new church. The day after the dedication. 105 Navajo pupils received the sacrament of Conﬁrmation and other sacraments.
Father Adrian Kohl OFM was assigned to Tohatchi in 1921. He built the ﬁrst rectory, used for an interpreter’s house for awhile. The friars lived their until the present multi-purpose building was occupied by Father Timon Cook OFM in 1981. The old rectory has been used by Navajo families, religious sisters and volunteers since then.
Naschitti: a New Dream
In 1925 Father Berard returned to Tohatchi for three years. He added on to the church and modiﬁed the facade. In 1933 Father Gregory Trocklus, OFM made a request for another mission site at Naschitti, 18 miles north of Tohatchi. The government opened a school there. His request was approved by the people of Naschitti on October 14, 1933. The following year Father Quentin Hauer, OFM was assigned to Tohatchi and supervised the construction of St. Anthony Mission, Naschitti. It was dedicated by Archbishop Rudolf A. Gerken of Santa Fe on June 11, 1935 – exactly 60 years ago on the clay of St. Mary Mission’s diamond jubilee day.
The pioneer years of St. Mary Mission closed in 1946. The boarding school was closed for ﬁve years. The mission lost its resident priest until Father Caron Vollmer, OFM was assigned there in 1951.
The middle years of St. Mary’s saw many Franciscan priests and brothers leaving unique marks on the body and soul of the mission. It would ﬁll this booklet to mention all their deeds: Fathers Clementine Wottle; Arno Walsman (who redecorated the sanctuary, built the bell tower and shrine to Mary and bought the mobile home for the sisters’ house); Paul Juniet (who with Brother Joel Soldinski planned the multi-purpose residence and hall and relocated the the convent); Cormac Antram (who supervised the building that others planned); and Timon Cook (who singlehandedly kept all the buildings and grounds in shape with his carpentry and landscaping skills).
Sisters over the Years
Many religious sisters served over the years – Victory Nolls, Maryknolls, Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Sisters of Mercy and Franciscans. Their quiet and tireless efforts in evangelization and religious education set the stage for the explosive modern era of St. Mary Mission.
Another event that was a prophecy of the “new years” was the completion of the multipurpose building, the present friary-hall combination. Funded mainly by the Extension Society, built by the Brothers Work Crew of St. Michaels, it was ﬁnished in 1976. Planned by Father Paul Juniet and Brother Joel Soidinski in 1974, it was completed while Father Cormac Antram was pastor.
The “Now” Years
On January 2, 1989, Fathers John Mittelstadt, OFM and Richard Baumann, OFM arrived to replace Father Timon. Father Meldon Hickey, OFM, Minister Provincial of the new Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had given them the challenge of “renewing the mission”. With them came three volunteers, Bill Garris, SFO, Rob Weaver and eventually Richard Wilkie.
The convent was empty. There were no religious education programs in place. The church building was in need of restoration.
Mass attendance at St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s was at a low. Father Timon had valiantly kept the buildings in shape singlehandedly, but was limited in ministries by the loss of the Maryknoll Sisters in 1988, notably Sister Dennis McCarthy, whose age and physical status demanded retirement.
Almost immediately the new team put into place limited religious education for elementary students, began plans to restore the old church and began a search for religious sisters. Mass attendance began to rise and attempts to reach the Tohatchi Special Education School began.
The church was completely restored, new roof, new walls, a 20 foot mural of the Navajo Good Shepherd by Dave Rogers in the sanctuary. The condemned balcony was carefully shored for usage again. Much of the work on the floor was done in the spring and summer by volunteer youth groups from four parishes in the Denver area. They also painted and helped restore the old rectory and insulated the convent.
In November of 1989, a signiﬁcant event occurred in the hall – a permanent Bingo program began. Tom Saucedo and his friends from Gallup set the program up and trained local personnel to run it on Wednesday nights. The program expanded over the years, more space was provided by utilizing the garage and mobile units attached to it. Bingo became the main source of revenue for the ordinary expenses of the mission, which climbed ﬁvefold in six years.
The Franciscan Sisters ﬁnanced the building of a Navajo Hogan chapel and ceremonial place in the rear of the old rectory. It is used for prayer and Mass by the staff during the week. Navajos use it for their traditional ceremonies occasionally.
An amusing story concerning Fr. John Mittelstadt and the 75th anniversary of St. Mary’s Church –
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, Father John was asked by the Navajo elders to ride a horse. He was to ride from the post office to the mission – to reenact Father Berard Haile’s riding a horse from St. Michael Mission (40 miles southwest) to Tohatchi in 1914.
Father John’s ride was uneventful and a large crowd, including Bishop Donald Pelotte, applauded. Tohatchi is the only Navajo mission on the Reservation where the people went to St. Michaels and begged the friars to come to them. in 1914 Father Berard began to come over the mountain by horseback to begin missionary work in this new area. Father Marcellus Troester, O.F.M., followed him in 1915 and by June 12, 1920, had the church built and dedicated.
Meanwhile, the Navajo people became more and more responsible for the programs of the mission. A Native American Ministry program began at Tohatchi. it was sponsored by the Diocese of Gallup and headed by Father Bill Hart lately of Shiprock. This pilot program produced two permanent Deacons, Wilson Gorman of Sawmill, Arizona, and Sherman Manuelito (ordained May 13, 1995, by Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, SSS at St. Mary’s, Tohatchi). The ordination of Reverend Manuelito (great grandson of Chief Manuelito) was a milestone for St. Mary Mission.
Finally, a very special event took place in the 1990s, at told by this piece written by Fr. John Mittelstadt, OFM:
Tohatchi Cross Joins Vatican Collection
Linda Benton, volunteer and artist in residence at St. Mary Mission, Tohatchi, New Mexico, received a special message from Cardinal Jan Schotte of Rome. Pope John Paul II declared her painting of the Native American San Damiano Cross “can be offered to the Holy Father.”
Tt is to become a part of the Vatican collection. Jan Cardinal Schotte is General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, a Vatican Congregation. The Cardinal showed the Pope a photo of the cross and the Pope is eager to accept it for the Vatican collection.
The cross is composed of Native American figures – save for one American bluecoat (instead of the ancient centurion), a conquistador, a Franciscan friar and one Mexican soldier. It is based on the cross that spoke to St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century: “Francis, go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin.” St. Francis was not only instrumental in repairing physical churches, but he and his Order were key to the renewal of much of the Roman Church.
The original cross was painted in the Byzantine icon style. It now hangs in the church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare) in Assisi, Italy. The Native American version had been hanging in the simple hogan chapel on the grounds of St. Mary Mission, where priests and Navajo medicine men have had ceremonies. Daily morning prayer and Mass is regular in the hogan, built by a local Navajo, Thomas Begay of Naschitti, New Mexico.
Other original Native American paintings by Linda Beaton grace the hogan, the inner and outer walls of St. Mary Mission.
Linda Benton of Cherokee ancestry, came to St. Mary’s as a volunteer from her home in Syracuse, New York, two years ago, to volunteer her services to the Navajo mission. Her first replica of the Byzantine cross hangs at a new chapel at Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. Fr. John Mittelstadt, OFM, pastor of the mission, asked her to paint another one in Native American style.
This is the one soon to be shipped to Rome for the Vatican collection, a great honor for the mission, the Navajo Reservation, and the Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It is also a symbol of the repairing of the physical churches of Tohatchi, Naschitti, Coyote Canyon and Ya-Tah-Hey,and of the tremendous congregation growth of the mission in the past seven years – tenfold by the staff’s estimation.