By Eileen Connelly, OSU 

TOHATCHI, New Mexico – In a remote area of New Mexico where many members of the Navajo Nation live in trailers, often without electricity or hot and cold running water, the holiday outreach and assistance provided at St. Mary Mission in Tohatchi is needed and appreciated. The 3,000-square-mile parish is on the eastern fringe of the reservation approximately 25 miles north of Gallup amid Navajo homesteads.  

Br. Dale Jamison, OFM, has ministered as pastor of St. Mary Mission since December 2012, along with serving as director for the Office of Native American Ministry for the Diocese of Gallup. He’s quick to give credit for the parish’s active ministries, including a food bank and thrift shop, to Br. John Mittelstadt, OFM, pastor at St. Mary Mission for 22 years, from January 1989, until his death in March 2011.

As Christmas approaches, things are especially busy, Br. Dale said, as he, along with Franciscan Sisters Marlene Kochert and Miriam Kaeser, OSF,  work to coordinate outreach efforts and do what they can to help ensure area residents’ basic needs are being met. Br. Dale spent Thanksgiving weekend giving mission appeals at St. James the Apostle Parish in Fremont, California, one of St. Mary Mission’s twinning partners. On the first Saturday in December, members of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Phoenix, another twinning partner, arrive with boxes full of donations for Navajo families. Sisters Marlene and Miriam visit families beforehand, speak with parishioners after Mass, and go to the local senior center to compile lists of what is needed.  

“That’s a ministry in itself – visiting people, listening and being present to them,” Br. Dale said, noting that more than 100 families are assisted through the project.  

A group of 22 people of all ages with a priest wearing purple robes

Caption #1 Parishioners from St. Joan of Arc Parish in Phoenix deliver donations annually. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Miriam)

Br. Dale with parishioner Joanne Begay (Photo courtesy of Sr. Miriam)

“You can’t imagine the amount of food, clothing, tools, household items and other supplies the people from St. Joan of Arc bring. It’s amazing,” Br. Dale added. “It’s a very active day with all of the boxes being unloaded, introducing the people from Phoenix to the Navajo families, then celebrating Mass together.”  

Sr. Miriam recalled one family who has been helped in the past: “One woman who lives nearby lost her arm in an accident a few years ago, and her husband passed away this past summer,” she explained. “She’s raising her three grandchildren, and her disability doesn’t go very far, so we’re doing whatever we can to help her.” Just in time for the holiday season, St. Mary Mission also receives 100 food certificates from the Southwest Indian Foundation, established in 1968 by Br. Dunstan Schmidlin, OFM, out of deep concern for the plight of his Native American brothers and sisters. Sisters Marlene and Miriam distribute the certificates to residents who are most in need, which can then be redeemed through the end of January at a grocery store in the Gallup area for a box of food, including a turkey, ham, sack of potatoes, bag of beans and various canned goods.  

“What we’re doing here is a very Franciscan apostolate,” Br. Dale said. “We’re here with people on the fringe. Some are living in situations that could be likened to a Third World country. What’s unique about the Franciscans in the Southwest is that it’s more than ministering to the people. We live in community with them, and we truly love them.”  

“It’s very rewarding to meet the people and hear their stories,” added Sr. Miriam. “In my mind, among the Native Americans, there is a nobility and respect that I haven’t found in many other places. I’m very grateful to be among the people here, learning from them and experiencing their culture. They are very grateful and appreciate our ministry here.”