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A Man of A God: The Last Franciscan Priest Among the Mescalero Apaches

After nearly 250 years, the Franciscan friars ended their association with the Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches on July 1, 2013, citing a shortage of priests and harsh economic conditions as causes. No replacements would be available. So, on a rainy summer morning Father Paul Botenhagen, OFM, quietly drove away from the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, leaving behind a priestless parish, a famous stone church in its last year of renovation, a congregation of dispirited souls, and a rare opportunity for new church leadership to arise from within the community.

Apache storytellers will now add this moment in tribal history to their rich inventory of events that happened during Father Paul’s 12 years as pastor at St. Joseph’s Apache Mission. Listeners gathered around the storyteller will learn that the 18th century Franciscans incorrectly judged the people’s worshipful ways as inferior to Roman Catholicism’s doctrines and theology. Generations of conflict occurred but the people remained faithful to their spiritual certainties and carried them into the future through stories. Today, after hundreds of years of assimilation into the European belief system, many of the ancestors’ teachings survive, and are seen by some Franciscans, including Father Paul, as compatible with Christianity. The combined traditional and Christian values nourish a solid foundation of Mescalero and Chiricahua identity.

That the Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches survived despite the efforts by three nations to exterminate them speaks to an unfathomed faith in their Creator and a pragmatic willingness to follow the Creator’s wishes; ultimately they were physically overwhelmed but not spiritually defeated. Throughout twenty-seven years of confinement as US prisoners of war, Christian clergy and workers found their way into Apache life. For example, a priest named Father Henry O’Grady from a town near the Alabama prison site, so impressed the people with his kindnesses that Chief Chihauhua asked him to baptize a newborn son. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the final imprisonment site, the emphasis switched to the Dutch Reformed Church’s way of worship and gained a foothold that remains solid today among many Apaches at Mescalero.

It is no secret that the vitality of most modern Indian tribes has been tempered by oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. The Apaches are no exception. And so, when the Franciscan Order announced its decision in the summer of 2011 to withdraw from Mescalero, the information seemed to fall on deaf ears. It seemed no one cared to show a reaction. Still, Father Paul cobbled together a small “transition team” of congregants to address parishoners’ expected questions.

Regular monthly meetings of the team produced nothing of substance until March 2012 when a medicine man specifically addressed comments to three senior Apache men present. Speaking in the ancestral language he proposed holding a two-day Blessing Ceremony designed to keep Father Paul in the community. When translated, excitement among the team members led to immediately planning the rare Blessing Ceremony for April.

Serendipity then jumped in. Unexpectedly, word arrived from the supervising Province of Santa Barbara, in California, that Father Paul’s tenure at Mescalero would be extended for another year. This relief was most welcome but the committee still continued with their plans.

Ironically, the church building itself, on federal and state historical registers, had involuntarily contributed to the initial decision. Income ran constantly in the red - $2047.00 needed weekly to maintain the facility, outbuildings and grounds. The upkeep directly and indirectly drained the overseeing Province and the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, of sorely needed monies to meet their ongoing obligations. Like the leadership of all commercial entities, the religious hierarchy has a no-nonsense dollars-and-cents bottom line. But blaming the mission church’s low income and a shortage of priests for the current situation unfairly side-steps and deliberately ignores what might be a primary cause. An Internet site provides details about the other circumstances that also could be behind the fiscal situation, e.g., payment of millions of dollars to victims of sexual abuse.

The people’s inertia perceptibly lifted when word of mouth got around about the upcoming ceremony. Posters inviting everyone were placed here and there across the reservation. The head cook, hired by the medicine man, made lists of her needed supplies and rounded up her helpers. Strong Apache men went into the tribal forest in search of wood to cut for cooking fires and the sacred bonfire. Leaders of the Mountain Spirit Dancers were asked for their groups’ participation. Women drove into Las Cruces (80+ miles distant) for foodstuffs not available locally. Sign-up sheets appeared in church asking for commitments to help; volunteers came forth quickly. In the background, Father Paul went on with his duties, trying to stay apart from the commotion but helplessly caught up in the buzz.

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Land lines and cell phones never stopped ringing. Cars, trucks, vans, and Apaches were everywhere on the blessed feast grounds, bringing in lodge poles and canvas for the dancers’ tipis, trees and brush for the traditional cooking arbor, taking away trash, unloading hundreds of pounds of flour, pinto beans, rice, potatoes, beef to be boiled as the ancestors did, chili, cans of mixed fruit, powdered juice drinks, hominy, tortillas, lettuce, tomatoes, crates of green and yellow squash, zucchini, thousands of paper plates, cups, bowls, plastic utensils, cleaning materials, 100-plus pounds of lard for fry bread, baskets of gifts for the dancers, bottled water for the singers, snacks, and soft drinks. Without fanfare, four tipis for the dance groups and one tipi to house the cooking supplies had been erected.

Just before dusk on the first evening, an Apache firestarter carried embers from the cooking fire on a shovel out of the arbor, placing the smoldering coals beneath sticks of kindling arranged in pyramidal form, similar to a tipi. Soon afterward large burning logs signaled that the evening was underway. When the dancers appeared from the east, the spiritual observation began.

At a prescribed moment, Father Paul, who had been visiting all over the grounds, was summoned to a dance group’s tipi. He sat in a chair facing four painted dancers in full Mountain Spirit attire and two young apprentices known as clowns. The lead dancer shuffled slowly toward him and touched him with sacred wands as male singers and drummers sang blessing songs in the original language. Apache women elders, cloaked in their traditional shawls, stood behind the seated priest as witnesses. The eldest woman placed her hand on his shoulder and the medicine man stood beside him, at his right. When the dancers had completed their activities, Father Paul stood and blessed each of them individually in the traditional manner, using hoddentin, the sacred yellow cattail pollen. This ceremony took place at each of the other dance groups’ tipis before Father Paul could return to the dance grounds and join in the ongoing celebration there.

The dance arena had filled with Mountain Spirit Dancers, singers, and drummers. Apache women draped their shawls across their shoulders and danced, enclosing the bonfire and the dancers within a sacred circle as the dancers leapt, spun and stepped into the Apache spiritual world, asking their Creator to permit Father Paul to remain among them into the future.

The ancient activities continued long into the night and began again the following day when, in the morning, the men restarted the cooking fire in the arbor, women kneaded the dough, fried the bread, chopped and cut the vegetables, and talked about the previous day and night. Father Paul appeared in mid-morning, meandering across the dance grounds and thanking everyone for their contributions. Apache men and women came and went, offered their help and received assignments from the workers: haul this, carry that, buy this, deliver that. Once again, the crowd began gathering in late afternoon, setting up their lawn chairs a respectable distance from the ashes of the cold fire, and visiting. Dinner was served in the early evening and shortly afterward the Mountain Spirit Dancers, singers, and drummers appeared for the second night, drawing their part of the ceremony again from the tribe’s cultural archives. As darkness fell, the bonfire blazed long into the night until Father Paul and the exhausted Apaches went home. The Blessing Feast was done.

The year’s extension of Father Paul’s tenure slipped quickly away. In March 2013 the transition team reconvened to plan two separate final ceremonies: another Blessing Ceremony for the priest and two bishops - the recently retired and the newly installed – and a “Sending Forth” Mass to bid farewell to the entire Franciscan Order. However, serendipity once again appeared, this time in the disguise of a dangerous medical condition. Father Paul suffered a mild stroke on April 30 in Tucson, Arizona, as he was driving from the reservation to a meeting in Phoenix. Hospitalized for about ten days, he returned to Mescalero with instructions for continuing physical and occupational therapies. Nevertheless, the last ceremony was held on May 31-June 1, was similar to the earlier ritual and just as well attended. The bishops and Father Paul received Pendleton blankets as gifts and then participated in the Mountain Spirit Dancers’ personal blessings. Eyes glazed over, the bishops appeared awkward wearing ribbon shirts and retreated quickly after the ceremony, but Father Paul appeared strong and in good health.

Two weeks later, on June 16, the California Order’s officials processed into the church to be part of the farewell-to-the Franciscans Mass. The encouraging speeches that filled the historic church, urging the parishioners to keep faith that another priest would be forthcoming, felt anti-climactic. Two more weeks remained before Father Paul would leave.

No priest has come and so the church remains in the hands of the small staff who have received directions from the new bishop, ever hopeful that the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches will have a resident priest once again. In the opinion of an anonymous Apache, “Once they took away our religion and gave us theirs; now they’ve taken theirs away and left us nothing.” Not everyone feels similarly, and it will be most insightful to listen to the storytellers’ interpretations of the events that swirled all around the last Franciscan priest among the Mescalero Apaches.

Henrietta Stockel is the author of several books about the Chiricahua Apaches and other Native Americans, including Women of the Apache Nation and Chiricahua Apache Women and Children.She is a co-founder and former executive director of the Albuquerque Indian Center and currently teaches the ethnohistory of the Chiricahua Apaches at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Arizona.