By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

BAPCHULE, Ariz. — Just off the I-10 freeway, nestled among farm fields on the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, St. Peter Indian Mission Catholic School stands surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

It is an oasis of hope in a community beset by adversity.

From poverty to high rates of diabetes and heart disease, to violence and substance abuse, the challenges here are steep, but at St. Peter’s, students experience a nurturing environment where their Native culture and Catholic faith are woven throughout their educational experience.

Now in its 100th year, the preschool-through-eighth-grade school has launched a yearlong celebration of its founding. Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares of the Diocese of Phoenix celebrated Mass Feb. 11 to mark the centennial. In his homily, he pointed to the first Franciscan Friars who established St. Peter Mission in 1900. The school was founded in 1923 and staffed early on by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, California. Since 1935, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity have led the school, educating the Native children.

Sr. Martha Mary Carpenter, OSF, principal, and Sr. Pamela Catherine Peasel, OSF, teach junior high students. Sr. Barbara Jean Butler, OSF, connects families with community resources, contacting area food banks and facilitating other services. The rest of the staff is comprised of lay men and women, some of them graduates of the school. Angelita Kyyitan White is one of them. She works in the office and now has grandchildren who attend St. Peter’s.

Speaking to a church packed with parents, grandparents, religious sisters and community members, Bishop Nevares noted the extraordinary path that led to the school’s enduring legacy.

“The theme for today’s Mass is miracles and blessings. And Lord knows St. Peter’s Mission School has experienced many, many miracles and blessings,” Bishop Nevares said. “So many have worked so strenuously over these last 100 years to build up this mission and the school to what it is today.”

The students at St. Peter’s are all Native American and many of them belong to the second, third and even fourth generation of those educated within its humble walls. Beginning as one-room schoolhouse students reached on horseback, St. Peter’s has blossomed into a thriving school that celebrates the students’ Native culture. Days begin and end in church with the students praying, singing and focusing on the centerpiece of their school community: Christ.

“As I was going through the property, I couldn’t help noticing in the office area they have a very beautiful little sign,” Bishop Nevares said. He quoted: “‘Be it known to all who enter here, that Jesus is the reason for this school. He is the unseen yet ever-present teacher in its classes, He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.”

Be it known to all who enter here, that Jesus is the reason for this school. He is the unseen yet ever-present teacher in its classes, He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.

Led in song by a guitar soloist, every voice in the church was raised to sing the various hymns during the liturgy concelebrated by Fr. Antony Tinker of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Fr. Tinker spoke about “pillars of the community” who laid the foundation for St. Peter’s.

“When I go to the cemetery, I think of the 100 years of those who have passed before us — that’s the reason we’re here,” Fr. Tinker said. “We stand upon giants.”

Fr. Tinker noted the many sacrifices of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. The sisters, he said, “helped to make this day possible because the school would not have been here for 100 years if so many had not given so much of themselves.”

Those sacrifices are a reminder that “we too are called to be such pillars so that one day when we’re all long gone, God willing our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be here celebrating a 200th anniversary for St. Peter’s.”

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