Story courtesy of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit.
St. Peter’s Indian Mission School in Bapchule, Ariz., is an oasis in the desert on the Gila River Indian Community Reservation (GRIC). The 100-year-old school has become a staple in the community, serving generations of Native Americans on the Reservation.
Sr. Martha Mary Carpenter, OSF, principal of the grade school and teacher of the junior high boys, has been at St. Peter’s for over 35 years. Sr. Martha and the other Franciscan Sisters of Charity at St. Peter’s have been praying to expand the grade school into a high school for years. When most people heard of the sisters’ dreams for a high school on the reservation, most chalked it up to wishful thinking.
GRIC had tried to start high schools on multiple occasions that weren’t successful. So the question on everyone’s minds was, would St. Peter’s High School ever work?
Bishop emeritus Thomas Olmsted first pitched the idea to Sr. Martha eight years ago. He saw the need for a high school on the reservation, after learning that children in Gila River were forced to attend high school in surrounding cities, often getting picked on for different cultural traditions. Since the schools weren’t designed with cultural sensitivity, it made for a hard learning environment, not to mention that the graduation rate was extremely low.
Once Bishop Olmsted planted the seed, Sr. Martha’s notorious prayerful persistence took over. She takes Matthew 7:7 seriously, “Ask and you shall receive.”
“When I get an idea in my head it doesn’t leave,” Sr. Martha said. “[It’s like] going to your mother and you say, ‘Please can I go to the store and get a popsicle? Please, please, please!’ And she says, ‘No, no, no.’ And you ask enough and eventually she says, ‘Go!’ That’s what I do. It’s persistence and it can be a pain in the neck but it works.”
Sr. Martha’s persistence increased as 2023 approached. She wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of celebrating the school’s centennial in the same year as the opening of a new high school.
“Nothing was going to stop us. If we had to teach outside under a vatho that’s where we’d be,” Sr. Martha said.
Sr. Martha has seen God work in extraordinary ways during her time at St. Peter’s, which gave her confidence that He’d pull through again with the high school, even if all the odds were stacked against them.
Sr. Martha explains the history of St. Peter’s in a YouTube video, showing how the school has been sustained through God’s providence. View the video here.
The one-room, 12-student school first opened in 1923, built next to a Catholic Church.
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity arrived in 1935 after there had been many improvements made to the campus: a new church was rebuilt in 1930 after the original church was burned down, two rooms were built to make space for the growing student body, and a convent was built in 1933 with the hopes of more sisters coming to teach at the school.
Since Sr. Martha arrived long-term in 1988, there have been countless improvements and expansions to the school, all thanks to God’s grace and provision. All of these additions, expansions, and upgrades were thanks to benefactors and the generosity of the community who’d come to see St. Peter’s as a beacon of hope on the reservation.
Some of the expansion projects have included additional classrooms, a basketball court with a shaded covering, a feast day house, baseball field, learning center and school office. Upgrades have included sidewalks, new floors, pavers, a fence and security cameras, and more.
It’s not just the improvements and expansions to the school that have made for a thriving learning environment, it’s also been thanks to the presence of Sr. Martha and the sisters. The Franciscan sisters, as well as the FHS dispense their charism of joy to the school community.
“One of our basic requirements is, you have to be happy. If you don’t pass the happy test you’re not going to make it here,” Sr. Martha said. “Happy children learn better and faster than kids who are overburdened, frustrated.”
This charism of joy has fostered a school community who chose to hope that a high school could happen. The FHS community and school community rallied around the sisters’ efforts when there seemed to be a lot of opposition, and the sisters were proud to open their doors on August 8th to the first ever freshman class! A grade will be added each year for the next three years until there is a four-year high school.
The 200-student grade school has grown significantly since 1923 and there’s hope for the high school to grow to 25 students per grade. For now, the 15-student freshman class is being taught in the grade school classrooms.
In order for this growth to happen, there’s much needed: a building for the high schoolers, funds and materials for the curriculum, funding to hire additional teachers, and much more. Sr. Martha has no doubt that God will continue to provide in completing the high school, just as he provided in finding a principal for the high school.
“It’s no accident God sent Sr. Pam to us who before she came to our community, was a high school teacher in Michigan. She knows high schools, I don’t know high schools!” Sr. Martha said.
Sr. Pamela Catherine Peasel, OSF has been with the community for 15 years and a professed sister for 12 of those years. This is her 13th year at St. Peters. Just like she is with all things, Sr. Martha was persistent in advocating for Sr. Pam to receive an administration degree from ASU.
As Sr. Pam worked to obtain her degree, the brunt of the planning began for the high school. The curriculum was established, and it was decided that the high school would offer career and technical education (CTE) courses. Students will have opportunities to dip their toes into different career paths their freshman year, pick one or two to focus on their sophomore year, and hone in on their skills their junior and senior years, even going to a paid internship one day out of the week and having opportunities to take AP classes and earn college credit.
The CTE courses this year include culinary, auto mechanics and wood shop; a graphic design class is being added next quarter. There’s dreams to expand the trade program and to even partner with the East Valley Institute of Technology, EVIT, to build a campus at St. Peter’s so students and the GRIC can have access to a more robust program that would include over 50 CTE courses. There’s already been so much excitement from the students participating in CTE classes.
“Our CTE classes are the last ones of the day and usually by then kids are burned out, but they are so energized! You walk in those rooms and you can feel the energy and the excitement they have looking at an engine and learning the different components, or using a hand saw, or tasting different things they’ve never experienced before [in culinary]. Those moments are great because you see them excited about learning and their education,” Sr. Pam said.
Sr. Martha explained the day the freshman boys, her former junior high students, ran into her office. They are enrolled in the auto mechanic class and were wearing coveralls for the first time.
“They said, ‘Sister look! I have coveralls on!’ They were like little boys,” Sr. Martha said.
A big obstacle to overcome in the establishment of the high school was finding teachers.
“We kept hearing, ‘Teachers are hard to come by,’ so that was a concern of ours in the initial planning but God works in marvelous ways,” Sr. Pam said. “The teachers slowly started coming from the grace of God.”
Sr. Pam proceeded to tell story after story of how the high school teachers found their way to St. Peters, one of them being Br. Lawrence Hogue, FHS.
Br. Lawrence is a second year theology seminarian with the FHS who is teaching woodshop to the freshmen, this year focusing on cabinet making. Aside from woodshop, Br. Lawrence also teaches algebra and scripture.
Br. Lawrence joined the FHS in 2017 and is currently in seminary formation. He first encountered the Franciscans in grade school and was a part of a Bible study in college led by some of the older FHS members that transformed his life. The friars foster relationships with the Lord through an encounter with the Holy Spirit and serve the underserved Native American communities.
“I fell in love with the Native peoples and it felt like home,” Br. Lawrence said, reflecting on his discernment. “I never thought I’d be a friar but the Lord had His way and His plan prepared. I’m really grateful.”
When Br. Lawrence first started discerning with friars, he didn’t expect teaching to be a part of his pastoral year. It wasn’t until last year that Br. Lawrence learned from the FHS community servant, Fr. Antony Tinker, that he’d be one of the first high school teachers at St. Peter’s. He feels the Lord is inviting him to be a positive influence to the children he teaches.
“A lot of the kids have had very traumatic upbringings and are missing one or both parents so they need that. The most fulfilling part for me is trying to show them care and trying to be a good quasi-parental influence for them,” Br. Lawrence said. “Seeing the kids happy when they get a math problem or having fun using power tools, it’s fun to see that.
“We want to set them up for life one way or another whether that’s college or to join the workforce,” Br. Lawrence said. “That’s what I’m most looking forward to, getting them to graduate, getting them prepared for life.”
Br. Lawrence reflected on the trials St. Peter’s has endured to establish the high school. He sees the trials as a positive sign, since it’s apparent throughout history that good things of the Lord are normally attacked.
“It’s like Jesus said to Saint Faustina, ‘If the work is of me it’ll suffer,’” Br. Lawrence reflected. “I was watching a Mother Teresa movie where you see God just arranging the circumstances around her. It feels like that, where God’s arranging the circumstances to make this happen.”
Sr. Martha, Sr. Pam and the rest of the community at St. Peter’s has seen God arranging the circumstances to make this school happen and they won’t let anything stand in the way from carrying out God’s plan.
“We overcame a little opposition here and there but opposition is opposition. It’s not a problem,” Sr. Martha said.
“I tell people now, I’m not leading this school, Sr. Martha isn’t leading this school, God is completely leading us and we’re just following His guidance in all of this with all of the trials we have faced,” Sr. Pam said. “We know beyond a doubt that the Lord wants this to happen and we’re just continuing to listen and move forward with everything.”
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