Advent tradition takes Phoenix Catholics to Navajo Nation

Volunteers from St. Joan of Arc parish carry boxes filled with much-needed gifts bound for the Navajo Nation. It’s all part of an annual Advent project. (Photo courtesy of St. Joan of Arc Parish)
Volunteers from St. Joan of Arc parish carry boxes filled with much-needed gifts bound for the Navajo Nation. It’s all part of an annual Advent project. (Photo courtesy of St. Joan of Arc Parish)

The Church is already halfway through Advent, the first season of the new liturgical year, a time to prepare to welcome anew the infant Jesus at Christmastime as well as His promised second coming.

“It’s a season of peace and joy,” said Fr. Don Kline, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish. “It’s for recommitting ourselves once again to Christ and carving out those non-essentials, making room for what’s really important.”

Just as many people make New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 1, Fr. Kline said, Advent offers the faithful the opportunity to make some spiritual resolutions in the dawn of the new liturgical year. One of those might be to more intentionally share the peace and joy the infant Jesus brought to Bethlehem and beyond.

That’s exactly what St. Joan of Arc parishioners have been doing for the last 15 Advent seasons when they deliver two large U-Haul trucks filled with basic necessities to the Navajo Nation. Many of the Navajo families live without electricity or running water and some live 50-75 miles away from a grocery store.

Joanmarie Zimmerli has been part of the outreach since its inception. “We are touched every year by their gratitude for absolutely everything they receive, whether it’s a mop or a bucket they needed or some tools,” Zimmerli said. “It just makes you feel so good. It is truly the reason for the season and it really is what Christmas is all about.”

It’s no coincidence that the parish is closely connected with the Navajo, despite being nearly 300 miles away. St. Joan of Arc has a perpetual Adoration chapel named after St. Katharine Drexel, a saint devoted to serving Native Americans. An altar inside once stood in the saint’s childhood home.

Volunteers from St. Joan of Arc parish load toys into boxes as gifts to children in the Navajo Nation. (Photo courtesy of St. Joan of Arc Parish)
Volunteers from St. Joan of Arc parish load toys into boxes as gifts to children in the Navajo Nation. (Photo courtesy of St. Joan of Arc Parish)

Sam Vidulich, one of the leaders from St. Joan of Arc, said during the first couple of years, the Navajo families were a bit suspicious of the endeavor. “Now they wave as they’re driving into the school area [for the gift distribution] and they’re talkative and just very happy. They trust us and look forward to it all.”

Each year, parishioners “adopt” dozens of Navajo families and find out their needs. Families request everything from socks and shoes to tools, canned goods and housewares. There might even be a toy request or two on the list.

St. Joan of Arc volunteers delivered the bounty — some 500-600 boxes of gifts for 180 families — earlier this month. In other years, they’ve adopted as many as 250 families.

Fr. Kline has seen several families arrive in one vehicle to pick up the gifts.

“They’ll come sometimes with little ones in the snow with no jacket or no shoes,” Fr. Kline said.

They’re not without warmth for long — the Knights of Columbus provide “hundreds and hundreds” of jackets, Fr. Kline said. The outreach touches St. Joan of Arc families, too, he said. “The families tell me how much it touches them, even if they don’t go to visit, just in going and picking out socks for the little ones and shoes and whatever basic needs there are.”

Jana Boteilho, a mother of four, has participated in the Navajo outreach for nearly a decade. She said the focus on reaching out to others has helped her family keep their eyes on Jesus.

“I think we’ve learned to appreciate what we have and realize that there are so many other families just like ours who are making it with so much less,” Boteilho said. She’s hoping her children’s yearly participation will teach them that “giving and sharing with others and spending time with people is more important than any material thing you could ever get.”