Story courtesy of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit 

Joyous anticipation filled the air at St. Anthony Mission in Sacaton, Ariz., in the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC). This past Sunday, the community gathered in their temporary building that had been used to celebrate Mass the last 20 years. This past Sunday, the community didn’t gather there for Mass but instead to process to the new St. Anthony Mission.  

The historic mission, which has been a staple in the community for generations, burned in January 2000 due to arson. This past Sunday was the culmination of years of prayers, asking God to provide the means for a new mission church, and now, the prayers had been answered.  

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The church bears a similar style to the old St. Anthony Mission and incorporates native cultural elements. A Tohono O’odham/Pima-Maricopa artist, Michael Chiago, designed the stations of the cross, using cultural elements such as a water to tie in the community’s connection to Gila River. The tabernacle and holy water stands were made from saguaro cactus found in the mountains near Blackwater on the GRIC, tying in the communities’ ancestral connection to the mountains.  

Bishop John Dolan addressed the community in his homily, recounting parishioner’s 24-year journey to the building of a new church. After the church burned down, parishioners celebrated Mass under the shade of nearby trees and for the last couple of decades, had been celebrating Mass in a multipurpose building. He emphasized that even though parishioners found a temporary home in these various locations, they as the people of God were the true church.  

“When we celebrate the concept of church, we always have to remember that church…is found in the community. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. It is Christ who dwells within us.  

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“Even though the church itself…was burned, you managed to forge ahead. While this is a building to house the church…there is nothing greater than…the very image of the church which is you.” 

Bishop John mentioned the continuity between the dark brown pews and the dark brown design of the baptismal font. He reminded the community of their entrance into the Catholic Church, where they were baptized into Jesus’ priestly, prophetic and kingly natures.  

“It doesn’t matter if you are under a tree or in a large shed or in a beautiful church. You are church and you are a prophetic people, you are a priestly people, you are a royal people sent to dispense the mercy of God in your family, in your community and in the world…There is one more temple greater than a tree, greater than a shed, greater than this building for Christ to dwell in, and that is you.” 

Following his homily, Bishop John prepared to anoint the altar. In God’s perfect timing, as he poured the first drop of chrism oil on the altar, the bell rang triumphantly for the top of the hour. The bell is one of the few items saved from the old church and its ringing connects the old and new church.  

Incense then wafted through the church, an outward sign of the prayers of the community rising to heaven. Elders of the community proceeded to dress the altar.  

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Communion was distributed for the first time in the newly dedicated church. Parishioners returned to their pews as living tabernacles, ready to follow bishop’s invitation to go out and bring the mercy of Jesus to their families and communities. Although the church would soon be empty after the final blessing, the tabernacle would now be full with Jesus’ Eucharistic presence, eager to welcome anyone who steps through the mission’s doors.  

Before the final blessing, Fr. Antony Tinker, community servant of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit and director of Native American Ministries, shared a few words. He recounted some of his first days in the Diocese of Phoenix in 2015. He is a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit who’s sole mission is to serve Native American communities in the Phoenix area. He remembered his first Mass being at St. Anthony’s and one of his first assignments helping with the building of the new church.  

He talked about the source of hope that St. Anthony’s became for the community, especially during COVID. The building permit was obtained in January of 2020, right before the pandemic outbreak.  

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“During COVID, we couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t do anything, [yet] this church kept rising up in the middle of it. It became a sign of hope. In the midst of this hopeless time, [when we] lost so many, this church goes up. So, it stands as a symbol of hope, for our church, for our community, for each and every one of us. 

“Let this church be a light that shines in the midst of darkness, a light that shines in the midst of the Gila River Community for many, many, many years to come, well beyond the lives of all of us.” 

Regina Antone, parishioner of St. Anthony’s and lieutenant governor for the GRIC, remembered the many community members who lost their lives due to COVID.  

“We feel them here with us today. I can see them in the aisle standing up here with us. They’re with us. I know they are. And they couldn’t wait until this was done, but they came back to be with us today.”   

Antone then read a letter sent by Riccardina Silvestri, a Consolada Missionary Sister who used to serve at St. Anthony Mission. In her letter, Silvestri reminded parishioners that miracles are possible because of their faith. 

Silvestri said in her letter, “The new St Anthony’s is a miracle.”  

Before the final blessing, Bishop John had one last remark. He reminded everyone of Pope Francis’ declaration to make 2025 a Jubilee Year centered around hope. The pope asked bishops to designate certain places of pilgrimage within the Jubilee Year.  

“[St. Anthony’s]…is the first official place of pilgrimage for the year 2025.” 

There was an audible gasp in the crowd followed by a long and loud applause. 

“I can’t think of a better symbol of hope for the jubilee year,” he concluded. 

The temporary building where Mass had been for years, was used as a gathering space after the dedication, bringing everyone together to celebrate. Donald Antone Sr., an elder in the community, was overjoyed during the joyous occasion and said that this is just the beginning.  

He emphasized that St. Anthony’s was a community effort. From children who hosted bake sales to GRIC’s immense contribution to the church, the amount of support has been overwhelming. He recounted stories of people who’d generously given, one of them being a lady who knew her life was coming to a close so she adjusted her will and left a significant amount to St. Anthony’s.  

“We have so many people we need to thank and it would take all day to recognize all of them. All I can say is, it’s been an awesome journey and here we are with a brand-new church. This is our way of answering the Pope’s prayer of, ‘Catholics come home.’” 

Antone’s grandson and longtime member in the community, Jason Pratt, said he’s been a part of St. Anthony’s since the beginning when Mass was celebrated under the trees.  

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“To see everyone happy and coming out to see the church is wonderful. I’m just…excited for new things to come. It’s been a long time and I’m extremely happy.” 

General contractor, Joe Wojtcuk, remembered the challenges, especially the times that they ran out of money. All of the challenges made the dedication Mass all the more memorable, a reminder that they persevered until the end.  

“It was a…long time coming.  

“You see a building coming up, the beginning of COVID [and] very slowly things are happening. We get to the point where we run out of money and we have to figure out what to do to get to the next step, the next step, the next step.” 

Wojtcuk motioned around the lively room of people sharing a meal together, sharing in the joy of the new church, some with tears still in their eyes. He said that the church has finally been built. “You can tell how people feel about it.”  


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