Franciscan Fr. Ponchie Vasquez working among the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.
Imagine a Catholic parish territory the size of an average-sized state, with just one or two priests to serve its thousands of people. One thinks of American colonial history, when missionary priests rode horseback from town to town, or the vast Amazon of South America, where clergymen are few and far between.
But in the American Southwest, in Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation’s land is nearly 5,000 square miles, including a desert the size of Connecticut. The Catholic mission there — the San Solano Missions Parish — serves more than 11,000 Catholics today, who represent about 85% of the reservation’s population.
Straddling the United States-Mexico border west of Tucson, the reservation has one small town, Sells, and about 70 villages. At the San Solano Missions Parish, Franciscan Fr. Ponchie Vasquez, another priest and a deacon, travel great distances to offer Mass, bring Communion to the elderly and offer pastoral care. With COVID-19 affecting Native Americans to a greater extent than the general population, they are distributing home worship aids, featuring daily Masses on the mission’s Facebook page, and extending their ministry by phone.
Given the extreme poverty, unemployment levels and rates of suicide among the Tohono O’odham, Fr. Ponchie worries that the pandemic will bring greater hardships.
“As we’ve had to cancel all religious services, one of the hardest parts is not being able to do funerals and memorials for the deceased,” he said in an interview with the Catholic Extension Society, a papal society that helps grow the Catholic Church in poor mission dioceses. “These traditions are a sacred part of our local culture.”
The friars are doing some Commendation Rites or Graveside Services, but with very limited attendance, the society reported.
Native American communities are suffering at disproportionately high rates from the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said this week.
“We are … concerned about the lack of sufficient resources to respond to the crisis,” said a letter signed by Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, and two other bishops. “The virus is exacerbating health disparities and long-standing social inequalities facing Native and Indigenous communities. Adequate funding for the Indian Health Service has long been a challenge, and there are reports of shortages of medical personnel and hospital beds. We are hopeful that the U.S. Senate’s recent unanimous confirmation of a director for the Indian Health Service affirms the recognition for the need of a strong advocate for the health needs of tribal communities.”
The Catholic history among the Tohono O’odham, which means “desert people,” goes back to 1687, when the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino arrived in Sonora. From then until his death in 1711, he built missions and worked with the Tohono O’odham and Pima. In 1700, he established the San Xavier mission in Tucson, which can still be visited.
The Franciscan Friars have been at the Mission with the Tohono O’odham since 1908. Father Vasquez became pastor of San Solano Missions in 2009. With the parish staff and lay volunteers, he provides pastoral care, conducts sacramental class and trains new lay leaders and catechists. As he travels from church to church, he typically arrives 30 minutes early to ring the bell, calling parishioners to Mass.
Of particular importance are the celebrations of patron feast days for each chapel. He is always there to join the festivities. “The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint,” he told Catholic Extension, which has long supported the mission financially.
“Mission work, service and ministry flow from the reality of how much God loves us,” said Fr. Ponchie. “When we are loved, we love.”