‘This is where God wants me’
Priest finds deep devotion among
religious, laity alike serving at missions
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Education is key to the Catholic Church’s evangelization efforts among Native Americans, and St. Anthony Indian Mission School in Zuni, N.M., is “a case in point,” said Father Wayne Paysse.
Last October, the priest, executive director of the Washington-based Black and Indian Mission Office, visited the school in the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., which encompasses seven Indian tribes.
Principal Deborah Goering showed him around the elementary school. Accompanied by a reporter and photographer from Catholic News Service, Father Paysse stopped in every classroom, talking to the teachers, teachers’ aides, and students.
In a Christmas blog on his website, www.blackandindianmission.org, he said the visit was like the “’magi experience’ when I saw the smiling faces of the Zuni youth. They were like bright shining stars that gave a glow of joy, peace, and a great sense of faith.”
“The children and their teachers, along with their principal, shared a real treasure with me as I walked through the classrooms and school campus,” he wrote.
“We feel that there is nothing greater than the positive impact on evangelization among our Catholic Indian mission schools from a good teacher,” Father Paysse told CNS in an interview in his office in early December. “Education is most important, because education is like a ladder. It gives them an opportunity to climb out of the difficult environment they’re in.”
As head of the mission office, Father Paysse spends two to three weeks a month visiting missions.
The school, on the Zuni Pueblo Indian Reservation, is tuition-free and depends on its development office to raise money to cover salaries, operating expenses and facility upkeep.
“The children are very happy in our Catholic mission schools,” Father Paysse said. “We have wonderful, very dedicated not only religious women and men, but laity who teach in our mission schools. It’s really a ministry because, believe me, they’re not there because of the money.”
Goering in Zuni can attest to how dedicated teachers at her school are despite the low pay. The starting salary is $14,950; the highest salary is $26,000.
“Most of the teachers who come out here look at it as a mission, a way to give back. They see the bigger picture,” she told CNS.
Goering feels the same about her job. Principal for three years, she arrived in New Mexico after many years as a principal in central New York. “This is where God wants me.”
Giving Native Americans the best education they could receive was a priority for St. Katharine Drexel, who spent her life and wealth ministering to American Indians and African-Americans. She built mission schools and churches across the country, helped by members of the religious order she founded -- the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
At St. Bonaventure School in Thoreau, N.M., also in the Gallup Diocese, Sister Consolata Beecher is “carrying forward her dream.”
Native Americans “cannot take their place in society, in levels of leadership” without education, “and the Catholic Church has to do it,” she told CNS.
A Laguna Pueblo Indian, Sister Consolata has been a member of St. Katharine’s order for 50 years.
“The leadership I’m talking about is in their own nuclear family, their community. ... Without education they’re never going to be able to take a substantial role in the community,” she added.
At St. Francis School in Gallup, principal Don Frank and development director Theresa Brophy want to build a support base among alumni and others who might consider making a small monthly donation to the school.
“The dignity of the individual is foremost” at St. Francis, Brophy noted. “Catholic education, it’s a guiding force for you for the rest of your life.”
The students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, benefit from church teaching permeating every subject and teachers modeling Catholic values and the beatitudes, Frank said, “because the nature of our mission is evangelization.”