St. Michaels Historical Museum
The 19th Century – an era of turmoil among the Navajo people (Diné), the Pueblo tribes, descendants of the original Spanish settlers and the newly-arrived Americans in Arizona and New Mexico. After being exiled to southeastern New Mexico in 1864, the Navajo returned to their traditional homeland, now a Reservation in 1868.
The Navajo weren’t alone on the land during those years, however. Settlers marked their property in the region with fences as they ranched, farmed and traded. In 1895, William (Billy) Meadows constructed the exterior walls of what is now the St. Michaels Historical Museum, planning for it to become a trading post. But he abandoned the project.
Three years later – 1898 – Mother Katharine Drexel (now St. Katharine Drexel), foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, worked with the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, headquartered in Washington, DC, to purchase the unfinished trading post and surrounding land. She and her Sisters established a mission and school on the site. She also invited Franciscan Friars from Ohio to run this first Catholic Mission on the Navajo Reservation.
The Friary at St. Michaels.
The Friars moved in on October 7, 1898, the interior walls and roof of the unfinished building having been completed. Mother Katharine, meanwhile, built St. Michael Indian School on another part of the property and welcomed the first students in 1900.
The Franciscans during those early years learned the Navajo language by trading food and other items with their Navajo neighbors for words – even using Montgomery Ward catalogue pictures to identify Navajo names of items! From there, working with the Navajo, lists of words were compiled into a dictionary. While gaining knowledge of Navajo culture and language, the Franciscans invited the Navajo to share meals with them and provided sustenance for animals during the extremely cold first winter spent in the Mission.
The parish church at St. Michaels.
Many of the early Friars who served at St. Michaels also assisted with tribal Councils, a comprehensive census of the Navajo people, and served as protectors for the Navajo people in various disputes. Over one hundred and twenty years the interaction between the Franciscans and Navajo people has created a foundation that continues today, with Franciscan Friars, priests and brothers, ministering in many parishes on the Reservation and in the region.