Mission to Arizona, 1916-1940: Father Augustine Schwarz, O.F.M.
Mission to Papaguería: Introduction
The Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was assigned to the Papago Reservation in 1908, and began building Catholic churches in many of the small and isolated agricultural villages. Some 56 villages were scattered over 2.8 million acres of the Arizona-Sonora Desert, where there are no permanent streams. It is a place where summers are searing hot and monsoon rains are a welcome refresher. In 1937, there were 6,305 residents in this vast area that shared a 64-mile border with Mexico.
Dominant on the horizon, and visible from almost every village, is the sacred 7,730-foot Baboquivari Mountain, center of the Papago universe. It is the home of I’itoi who will leave his cave on the mountain to help the Papago people when they are in need. Traditional beliefs such as this, have blended with Catholic dogma and have been called, Sonoran Catholicism. Writing in The Indian Sentinel, Rev. Mathias Curtin, O.F.M. said that “We make a practice of interfering with none of [the traditional practices] that do not appear to be offensive to our Catholic Faith.”
The Franciscan fathers can be credited with inaugurating a system of day schools in those same villages, mainly through the efforts of Father Bonaventure Oblasser, O.F.M. He strongly believed that children could be best served by staying with their families and attending schools close to home. Thus it was that both schools and chapels began to appear in a number of villages, and by 1927, there were 6 operating Catholic day schools, and 27 chapels on the reservation.
At first, one building served as both school and chapel, but it wasn’t long before a complex of structures appeared. In addition to the church, often with a detached bell tower, there would be a school, a ramada and cooking area, and at some hundred or so feet from the chapel door, a field cross. These either encircled or were close to an open area or dance ground. Years later, when children were bused to schools in Sells and Santa Rosa, the old village school house might get a fresh coat of paint and become a meeting house.
One of the early schools was built at Topowa, where Father Augustine served as Superior of the San Solano Mission complex between 1935 and 1941. Some of the first teachers were Papagos who had already graduated from grade school. Later, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary arrived in the desert to take up teaching posts.
The pupils of Topowa’s St. Catherine’s Mission School wrote a number of letters to The Indian Sentinel under the banner, “How Papagos Live.” Student, Edith Francisco, wrote that there was “little rain but even if we can’t have the many flowers and trees like we read about in the school books we do have some beauty. Our skies are almost always blue. Our mountains change colors many times a day.”
Susie Miguel said, “We like to go to school. We never had so many children in school before. We use all the seats, chairs and tables we can find. We like to read.”
And Edward Joaquin noted that life was not an easy one in the desert. “We must all help to get food, “ he wrote, adding that his father had to round up the horses and cows and hunt rabbits. “Mother does the work and makes baskets which we trade at the store for food or clothes. We all help to gather the cactus fruit which is made into syrup, jam or dried. We dry our meat, squash and corn too.”
These little vignettes and others like them were used to solicit donations to support the building and maintenance of churches and schools, teacher salaries, school supplies, and even food. Father Augustine was not so subtle in his request. Under the title, “Wampum Worries,” he pled for money to re-build the roof of the Big Fields church which had blown off during a violent summer storm: “The walls, which are of adobe or sun-dried brick, require this protection. Otherwise they will be seriously damaged by the heavy rains. New materials together with the freight will cost about a hundred dollars. We will do the work.”
Following are photographs and stories about eleven churches on the Papago Reservation and San Xavier del Bac on the San Xavier Reservation, taken between 1918 and 1940.