AK CHIN — The Native American Catholic community had outgrown the old church at St. Francis Mission years ago. On top of being too small, it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
Now, after Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted dedicated the new church April 13, the community has a comfortable place to worship God and welcome new members. The church now seats 450, nearly nine times as many as the old church. And it has heating and air-conditioning too.
“God makes all things new,” the bishop said in his homily during the dedication Mass. The community began working on a new church in 2004. “Sometimes it takes a long time to make all things new.”
Many worked together to rebuild the church, including non-Catholics. Bonds of friendship have grown, the bishop said.
“They’re worshipping together, week by week,” said Mill Hill Missionary Father Gregory Rice, pastor of St. Francis. “I want to encourage you to keep doing this. Keep coming, keep being joyful and keep on being faithful.”
Fr. Rice said the new church will “for generations be a place for families to come and worship God.”
Flower Ruelas, one of the parish leaders, said the new church is a blessing — as the old church had been. But the old church was too small and on feast days, weddings and funerals far too few could fit inside.
“We’re looking forward to celebrating the Eucharist with a lot more people,” Ruelas said. “We expect a lot of parishioners, who stopped coming because they didn’t fit, will be coming back.”
Deacon Tom Swisher, now retired, began working in the community in 1996. He said it was a challenge to get people to church in July in August without air-conditioning.
“It takes a lot of faith for 150 people to go to Mass with no air-conditioning in the summer,” he said.
Deacon Swisher underscored Bishop Olmsted’s dedication to Native American Catholics since the bishop arrived in the Diocese of Phoenix in 2003. Since the bishop began leading the diocese, more priests have been serving at the missions, providing more Masses and more time for confessions. This outreach built upon what was already in place.
“It was our mission to help them preserve the Indian culture as much as we possibly could,” he said. “Here they could be Catholic and Indian at the same time.”
The new church will continue in that mission, which is much needed as the bordering the city of Maricopa has expanded. Deacon Swisher said the city’s growth has encroached on the native culture.
Sally Antome has seen how the culture has changed over time. She cared for the old church for years, following in the footsteps of her mother, Juanita Norris, and her sister, Elaina Norris.
“It’s sad about the old church,” she said. “It’s getting old and the floors are giving in. It sags when you walk on it. We needed a new church.”
The new church isn’t finished yet, though. Plans are underway to build a bell tower in the next couple months. It will be a place for Native American Catholics from throughout the diocese to gather.
“It’s our largest church serving Native American Catholics,” said Deacon Jim Trant, parish life coordinator at St. John in Laveen. “It came about thanks to a widespread commitment in the community, Catholic or not.”
Beauty like architecture is one of many ways that God reveals Himself, Bishop Olmsted said in his homily.
“The mountains, the stars, the sun — all beautiful things in creation, especially men and women, in whose image they were created reveal God’s presence,” he said.
It’s no accident that the mission is named after St. Francis, the bishop said. God told St. Francis to “Go rebuild my Church,” which the 13th century Italian saint did.
“The whole living Church needed to be rebuilt, far beyond what he had imagined,” the bishop said. “What God has been doing here [in Ak Chin] is something like this.”