St. Michael Indian School

Walking in the Footsteps of St. Katharine Drexel

Sr. Zoe Brenner

Walking in the footsteps of St. Katharine Drexel is literal and figurative when one thinks of St. Michael’s Indian School in St. Michaels, Arizona.

Katharine built St. Michael’s Indian School, but she did not go into the endeavor alone.  She enlisted the help of local Navajos and the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist.  This is part of Katharine Drexel’s legacy to reach out, use the expertise of others, and empower.

The story goes that Katharine went to the Provincial in Cincinnati, Ohio to get his word that he would send Franciscan friars to St. Michaels, Arizona.  This reaped more than she could have imagined.  Fr. Berard Haile came along with two other friars. They learned to speak the Navajo language and were the first to write it down.  The Franciscans continued to meet with the headmen and planned for 76 Navajo children to begin at St. Michael Indian School on December 3, 1902.

In the beginning, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament helped with the Religious Education and gathered the students to receive their sacraments.  The School continued to grow and flourish, and the Franciscans were always there to have mass for the Sisters and children.

The Franciscans established many Missions throughout the Najavo Reservation to serve the people. St. Michael Mission, whose parish name is Mary, Mother of Mankind in St. Michaels, Arizona, became the home church.  Mission churches were established in Arizona in Fort Defiance, Houck, Chinle, Pinion, Many Farms, Ganado, Klagatoh, Sawmill, and Navajo, New Mexico.

The Franciscans enlisted the help of several different congregations on the Navajo Nation Reservation. The religious women were a great help to the development of the people’s religious growth.  The Navajo people were encouraged to be part of the church and the ministry; lay men and women volunteered and worked in the parishes.

St. Michael Indian School and all the additional missions and parishes set up in the legacy of St Katharine Drexel is truly an endeavor by and for many. This to me is the legacy of St. Katharine Drexel: to empower the people, to allow all to come to the Eucharistic Banquet, to know that we are all one.

I minister in three parishes and have been doing so for over five years: Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Berard, and St. Francis of Assisi. Christine Raynor and I were given the duty to oversee these three churches.  At St. Francis Mission, Rita Bia has lived on the property and kept the hogan church and quanta hut up and running for about 20 years.  Deacon Gorman Wilson, a native deacon and St. Francis parishioner, has served the people also for more than 20 years.

The blend of religious and lay ministering at these three churches has been a pattern.

A summer program for children at the St. Berard and St. Francis Churches was started in 1990.  The teachers were the women of the parish.  At the beginning, they were under the supervision of Sr. Marguerite Bartz SBS, then Sr. Magdalena Studer, SC, then Sr. Zoe Brenner SBS and in the last years under Rita Bia and the women.

Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (OLBS) and St. Berard/St. Francis also started the LOFT or GOF programs.  These are parish programs where there is intergenerational faith sharing and development.  One year at OLBS there was a Seder meal.  A family did the reading and directed the tables of people.  We had roasted lamb from the reservation.  Lamb and mutton stew are staples for the Navajo Peoples. These programs are now carried out by the native parish people.

The youth group, consisting of the three churches, and St. Michael Mission have become a vital part of the Faith community by Annual acted Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, creating a Christmas Party for the children of Angel Tree’s incarcerated children, doing a play about Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The ideas for theses came from Christine Rayner, Youth Minister.  The local parishes and Navajo people come in support of these programs and use them to deepen their faith and community relationships.

In the wake of the Covid-19, life on the Navajo Reservation has changed.  Recently, we have been able to open the churches on the reservation to 25% capacity. Many people are still not comfortable with coming to church, though.  Since Palm Sunday in 2020, the OLBS parish set up a drive through where parishioners of the three churches pick up their missalettes and monthly devotional books.  This Palm Sunday, the drive thru handed out palms to the Parish families and a visual for Wednesday to Saturday of Holy Week.

Looking forward, plans are working to start a food pantry at St. Berard and St. Francis parishes. We would love to have food to give out to those in need in the local area. With the help of the Seton Associates in New Jersey, this is now becoming a reality.


Walking in the footsteps of St. Katharine Drexel,

            knowing that the power of God resides in each and every one of us

            knowing that it will take each of us to right the hatred of racism

            This continues to be a challenge to each of us

            This continues to be the challenge of Katharine Drexel

            She lived in a different time…

            We need to find how we can be the challenge today.