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Returning St. Peter to the Tohono O’odham

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Tim Muldoon

Tim Muldoon - published on 05/09/16

A Native American parish, founded in 1600's by Jesuits, is too poor to replace a broken statue, but rich in the love of Christ

Long before modern border disputes, the Tohono O’odham (“desert people”) dwelt on land that today includes southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. One can find thousand-plus year-old petroglyphs on rock formations that rise up and give texture to the beautiful desert landscape, populated by abundant saguaro cacti.

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Marine 69-71 CC via WikiCommons

It is a place far from Europe, but it was here that the Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino arrived in the late 1600s as part of an effort that led to the founding of 24 missions and visitas in the region. One of them was San Xavier del Bac, a beautiful church and active parish that is now part of the reservation.

Today, the O’odham people still regard Kino as a father in faith, a faith which, according to one woman who spoke to our group a few weeks ago, is “the glue which holds this community together.” She, an Apache “newcomer” (as she describes it) to the San Solano mission, has been here only 40 years, having married into the community. She and her two friends spoke proudly about their beautiful brick chapel, immaculately clean, which was a focal point of her village’s life. It is one of 40 chapels served by the mission in an area about the size of Connecticut, staffed as it has been for two centuries by the Franciscans. There are some 11,000 residents in a number of villages on the reservation, but only two priests and a religious brother. A Franciscan sister from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, whose community came to the reservation not long after Mother Katherine Drexel built a school there, is also active in pastoral life on the reservation.

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Catholic Extension

Their work is supported by Catholic Extension Society, on whose mission committee I serve. Our group wanted to learn firsthand about the challenges that this part of our local church faced, and how their faith helps them navigate those challenges. The Tohono O’odham nation is one of many Native American communities that Extension has supported in 24 different dioceses over the years. The $5.3 million that Extension has provided over the past five years alone is critical for the support of priests and women religious, as well as construction and repair of the facilities on those reservations. The average Sunday collection is only $247 per week, so without this support which comes from the rest of the Catholic faithful in the United States, they could not survive.

At the San Pedro chapel our group met Willard Thomas, who, as a retiree, has taken on pastoral leadership in his village. He too spoke with pride of the small chapel in which we sat, a chapel that has a leaky roof and is prone to inviting small creatures to take a break from the desert sun. Around the chapel are a number of statues that are used in processions. Birthdays, feast days, and funerals are occasions when their saints need to “take a walk,” he told us. One of the statues, though, is missing: Willard spoke of breaking down in tears when he accidentally broke the statue of St. Peter, after whom the chapel is named. Not long after that, the San Solano Missions Facebook page (April 9) begged for a replacement statue — a three- to four-foot plaster statue.

My hope is that we can return a statue of St. Peter to San Pedro, as a sign of the solidarity of the Church in the United States. Catholic Extension has set up a fund to help toward this effort, and I hope you will consider a tax-deductible gift toward that purchase. Any money raised above the cost of the statue will go toward providing another priest to serve the community.

Tim Muldoon (PhD, Catholic Systematic Theology, Duquesne University) is a theologian, professor and award-winning author who serves in the Division of University Mission and Ministry at Boston College, where he edits the journal Integritas: Advancing the Mission of Catholic Higher Education, a publication of the Boston College Roundtable.

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