Story courtesy of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit 

Photos by Anthony Jones. 

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

It was in January 2000 when St. Anthony Mission Church in Sacaton, Ariz., on the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) went up in flames. The community would soon learn that the cause of the fire was arson. Carol Jackson, a parishioner, grew up on the reservation and was in a building next door the night of the fire.

“I saw smoke…Everybody rushed over there. We stayed there with the church and watched it. Everybody was crying.” 

Smoke lingered in the air the next morning when the fire department investigated the interior and pulled out vestments that were completely untouched as well as a glass container of holy water. After the building cooled off, Jackson went inside as the fire department dismantled the tabernacle and pried it off, revealing an interesting burn mark on the wall. 

“It looked like there was the face of Jesus right there…And it looked like [He] had the thorns on His head. And I knew, [Jesus] was there…It gave us strength, you know, to keep moving, keep doing what we need[ed] to do.” 

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

St. Anthony Mission was built in the 1920s and had been a staple in the community for decades. After the fire, Mass was celebrated under the trees. When the heat got to be too overwhelming, the local community center was used for Mass for several years until the parishioners moved back to the site of the old church into a steel structure where Mass has been celebrated since.  

After grieving the loss of the church, the community quickly came together and they began what would become a 24-year journey to rebuild St. Anthony Mission. 

“No matter what…we overcame it, and we’re continuing to do that. We just know that God is [here]. We believe in that. We believe in the Eucharist, and we know…that is our strength. I guess that’s how…we got through all of this.” 

The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit, along with the Mission Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit sisters, have been a constant support for the community during this difficult time. The friars serve 11 mission churches on the four reservations in the area, including St. Anthony’s. Jackson is thankful to the friars who make Jesus sacramentally present to St. Anthony’s parishioners every Sunday. 

“[Jesus] is there for all of us and things that we go through. He’s always there in our church and in the people that come. [There’s] a song that we sing, ‘The Lord is present in His sanctuary.’ And…I believe it.” 

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

Elder in the community and former governor of the GRIC, Donald Antone Sr. also remembers the day of the fire.  

“It was one of the saddest occasions that we’ve had to go through. When it did burn…the parishioners came running over, but there was nothing that could be done. It was devastating.”  

After the fire, parishioners started dreaming of a new church that could be in the community for generations and bring new life to the community.   

“When we first started, it was just a dream we didn’t have any money at all.” 

Antone explained that the Mission Guadalupanas Sisters and Franciscan Friars helped the parishioners reach out to potential donors and begin the fundraising process.  

“It’s overwhelming to look back to see the money that has come in from different sources, including our own parishioners who dug deep into their pockets. To see the little children how they put in their nickels and dimes in a pickle jar…every Sunday.” 

Now, after years of fundraising and praying, the dedication Mass of the new church was held Sunday, June 23rd.  

“I’m overjoyed with the new church…but I’m also kind of saddened because we’ve lost a lot of our parishioners during the pandemic. They’re no longer with us, but I know they’re here with us in spirit.” 

Even with the pandemic and so many challenges along the way, Antone saw the Lord’s provision.  

“I’ve been taught how powerful prayer is. These past few years that we’ve been gathering together and praying the rosary every Sunday…there’s been times when our little budget goes to minus zero…and lo and behold…the next few days, a check comes in.  

“It’s so rewarding for some of us that have been praying so hard to get this project going. I have actually seen the power of prayer.” 

General contractor for St. Anthony Mission, Joe Wojtcuk, has worked on high tech facilities and has recently been helping with diocesan projects.  

Wojtcuk soon realized that this project was different from any other he’d ever worked on mostly due to the fact that the GRIC has their own construction rules and regulations to follow. Wojtcuk had a sense that what they thought would take two years, would take much longer. It ended up being four years. 

Despite the challenges, Wojtuck made sure that a durable church was built that could stand the test of time and that would be a part of the community for generations.  

“You see a community’s needs. I loved the architecture from the day I saw it on the drawings. I knew it was something that I would completely enjoy building. I knew it was something that that community needed.” 

Even during COVID when much of the world shut down, Wojtcuk is thankful to benefactors, contractors and others who came together to ensure that St. Anthony’s could continue to be built at a consistent pace.  

“I think the community understood how important it was to have that church rebuilt. I knew there was an end to the means. So I felt like, if we just stuck with it, we would be able to get through and complete this eventually.” 

Now that St. Anthony Mission has opened its doors, Wojtcuk can’t help but think how present the Lord was in the whole process. The Lord provided people who could fill what was needed, whether it be one million dollars or a stonemason.  

“It’s been a long time coming for [the community]…it touches your heart to see there’s a lot of people out there that work for the good of the Lord and want things for their community to be better.” 

Anthony Jones grew up on the GRIC and under the guidance of architect and mentor, David Dick, designed St. Anthony Mission. Jones was asked in 2013 by his grandfather, Donald Antone Sr. to help with St. Anthony’s.

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

Jones worked with staff at the diocese to design a traditional mission-style church. The site was cleared in 2019 and they received a building permit about a week before the COVID shutdown with $200,000 fundraised. 

“We had to kick it into high gear with the fundraising and our nuns told us [there was] nothing to worry about…just dig a little deeper and work a little harder. They helped us understand that there’s people out there that can help. There’s so many times this project almost stopped, but we made it.” 

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

Another challenge besides fundraising was the original bell from St. Anthony’s, one of the few items salvaged from the fire. The community was adamant about having the bell in the new church. Fitting a heavy bell on the top of the church was a challenge for Jones, yet he made it happen and now it can be heard ringing throughout the community. 

“After hearing [the bell], I understand why they needed it up there. It’s bringing part of the old back into the new. I like to think of the church’s voice as the bell, and that was needed.” 

Jones also knew that a connection to the GRIC culture would be needed in the new church. With the help of his two sons, he used dried cacti from the surrounding mountains to make the holy water and tabernacle stands.  

Jones remembered a conversation with one of the Guadalupanas sisters who mentioned the important connection of the tribal members’ culture to the church. 

“We have to tie this church to our land…to our home. The mountains are so much of our home that we have to bring the mountains [and] the river into the church. If you walk throughout the church, you’ll see the water symbols everywhere, because we are the river people. 

Anthony Jones | The Catholic Sun

“Bringing the saguaro into the church was very important because it was our culture as well as our religion, and the two would only make us stronger.” 

Thinking about the team effort it took to rebuild St. Anthony’s, Jones is grateful to have been a part of it. Although the project took much longer than Jones anticipated, he’s thankful to now see the completed church. 

“This project couldn’t be done without all the hands that have been on this project, and to see the way God works, and to see the power of prayer…and to see that there was nothing to be worried about. You just do your part and He’ll do the rest. 

“I’ve worked on lots of projects in my time and worked on million-dollar homes…but nothing could compare to this project, restoring what we lost and knowing that it’ll be here long after I’m gone. My grandchildren’s grandchildren should still be attending this church. So that’s what I look forward to.”  

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