Mission to Arizona, 1916-1940: Father Augustine Schwarz, O.F.M.

Mission to Pimería: Introduction

The first brown-robed Franciscans from the Sacred Heart Province of St. Louis, arrived in Phoenix in 1896 to take over St. Mary’s Parish. These friars and those who were to serve in southern Arizona, are in a geographic division based in Santa Barbara, California – the Santa Barbara Province.

In April of that year. Father Novatus Benzing climbed into a dilapidated buggy, cracked the whip, and drove his team some 14 miles to the village of Komatke, a Pima word for Blue Hazy Mountain. Here, at the foot of the Estrella Mountains, he offered holy mass, thus establishing the first mission with the Pima Indians of the Gila River Indian Community. The Indians asked that it be named for St. John the Baptist.

In the beginning, St. John’s was the center from which all missionary work radiated in Arizona, and during his tenure, records show that Father Augustine visited and photographed other sites in the Gila River Indian Community: St. Michael’s at Hashan Kehk; and St. Joseph’s at Wetcamp. He also made regular trips to St. Francis of Assisi church in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. These follow the St. John’s story.

LAB MSS-153/29:146

The friars faced numerous challenges as they traveled to these villages in the early twenties over dusty and unimproved desert roads. The horse and buggy usually fared quite well.

As a matter of fact, the horse in the photograph is shown here pulling Fr. Nicholas Perschl’s 4-passenger Ford out of another driving challenge common to the desert: a fast-running, swollen river following a violent rain storm. One other time, Fr. Nicholas had to leave his car, hike up his habit, hold the Blessed Sacrament high, and while uttering “a good sanctimonious oath” slogged safely across a flooded river.

LAB MSS-153/2:2

Fr. Antonine Willenbrink braved a raging wash of “slimy, sticky mud” in his old Ford. He was helped on his return by a wild steer that tried to buck the car from the road and helped considerably by pushing the old car through three washes. Over and over again, the priests told stories of how they combined elements from a number of wrecks to keep the so-called vehicles running over the thousands of miles they covered each year.

Fr. Bonaventure Oblasser complained in 1935 that the 1919 Studebaker hearse that had been converted to a school bus was pretty well worn out as was a 1926 Dodge truck with over 100,000 desert miles on the odometer. He was writing to the The Indian Sentinel hoping for a $2000 donation to replace these artifacts.

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