SACATON, Ariz. – When fire destroyed St. Anthony Mission Church in 2000, it prompted the Diocese of Phoenix’s vicar for Native American Ministries at the time to voice a theme Catholics hear often. 

“The building was not the community,” he said, referring to the Church as the body of Christ; its people, not the structure in which they worship. 

Still, in this part of the Gila River Indian Community, where physical amenities are farther between and resources fewer than those in the non-Native world, St. Anthony was as big a part of the lives of believers as any other local place. 

Built in the late 1920s and the oldest of six mission churches within Gila River, St. Anthony was described as the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Worshippers were accustomed to gathering every Sunday for Mass; to go to Confession, hear the Liturgy, take Holy Communion and sing to the LORD. It was there that families saw sons and daughters married, gathered for baptisms and found solace in their Heavenly Father, the Blessed Mother and one another as they laid relatives to rest. 

But on Jan. 3, 2000, their spiritual routine was shattered, their worship lives altered – some may have thought irrevocably – when a deliberately set fire took most of their structure, including its roof and interior.  

The arsonist was never caught. 

Miraculously, the sacristy – with its chalices, vestments and altar supplies – was untouched.  

The large, brass church bell also survived. 

On Sunday, June 23, that bell will ring again, and for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, the faithful of St. Anthony will gather in their own church. Bishop John Dolan will celebrate the special dedication Mass for the new church at 10 a.m. 

“People are really excited and emotional. It’s taken them years (to complete),” said Sr. Lorena Sandoval of the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit, the international community that has served St. Anthony since summer 2023, when they took over for the Consolata Missionary Sisters. Consolata had been there and at other Gila River missions since August 2014. 

“It was very hard on them when their church burned down,” Sr. Lorena recalled. “People here grew up in that church and talk about it. They were baptized, got married, had funerals there.” 

“Seeing it come to fruition; it’s wonderful.”


The road back has been a long one for Sonia Antone. 

A part of St. Anthony for years and now treasurer of its parish council, Antone remembers the enormity of the challenge in the years immediately after the fire.

“We knew we had a long road ahead of us. We’re not rich. We go year-to-year raising funds to pay for maintenance and other bills. I don’t think any of us thought of a time frame,” she said. 

Antone and a number of others began a rosary for construction, prayed every Sunday before Mass. 

While the Diocese provided support, including a metal multipurpose structure for worship, dinners and other events, the community began fundraising. Efforts were highlighted by an annual October bazaar and smaller events. The funds slowly came together. 

But just as St. Anthony appeared set to ramp up construction, COVID emerged, shutting supply lines, driving up material costs, and slowing the project to a crawl.

“The expense of everything was killing us,” Antone said. 

God wasn’t finished, however; and neither were St. Anthony’s faithful. 

Outside sources, including the Pitre Family Foundation and the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation – the philanthropic agency begun by the Discount Tires founder – helped push the parish forward. 

No strangers to the Diocese, the two entities have helped complete projects for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Notre Dame Preparatory, among others. Their donations to St. Anthony alone totaled $1.5 million over 3 years.  

Finished this spring, the building gained its Certificate of Occupancy from GRIC earlier this month. Parishioners got their first up-close look at the new church during an open house June 8.


The building resembles its original predecessor, a mission goal, Antone said.

“We are all in awe of how it looks. There are hardly words to express what we feel because of all the work (as well as) our prayers,” she said. 

Bishop emeritus Thomas J. Olmsted, who celebrates Mass about once a month on the reservation to help the community assigned to its missions – the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit – said the new church’s completion is a testament to the faith and hard work of the St. Anthony community. 

“Whenever I arrived (for Mass), one of the first things I would notice is a group, praying the rosary. It’s very striking. There’s a fidelity to that.” 

While the Church is its people, having a new, beautiful space with a crucifix, altar, Stations of the Cross, tabernacle, pews, kneelers and other physical elements, carries evangelistic properties that help worshippers sense God’s presence.

“It lifts up our hearts,” said the bishop emeritus. 

Having familiar surroundings also promotes the familial aspect of Sunday worship.

“The church provides a place, especially on Sunday, for families – and especially those without them – to gather together. It has a lot to do with what Sunday means to the Catholic Church. It has a very important role.” 

That role will serve not only the present generation but tomorrow’s as well.

“Some of the people involved in the new building are elderly and have children or grandchildren here. Now, they have something where their children and grandchildren can celebrate their faith (in),” said Sr. Lorena. 

It’s a celebration Antone prays will include those upon whom the ordeal has exacted a specific toll. 

“We have several families who grew up here; (including) some who have been away for a while. We have prayed that after the consecration, a lot of those who have been away will come back.” 

That would be the finishing touch to St. Anthony’s journey. 

“There are hardly words to express what we feel because of all the work (as well as) our prayers. We have really been blessed,” Antone said, her voice wavering with emotion.   

“It is like coming home again. We are so grateful.”

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