COCHITI PUEBLO, N.M. – Inside the mocha adobe walls of St. Bonaventure Church in northern New Mexico, Christine Suina recalled how her 7-year-old daughter, Mikayla, coaxed her into becoming a teacher of religious education three years ago.
“She said, ‘Mommy, do you know who would be proud of you if you taught catechism?’” said Suina, speaking from the sanctuary of the 17th-century church which sits on the valley floor of the Cochiti Pueblo, 22 miles southwest of Santa Fe.
Assuming the youngster was going to name any number of relatives, Suina was moved to tears when Mikayla identified the person her mother would be making the happiest: Jesus.
“She’s a little evangelist,” said Suina, who teaches religious education classes to children in pre-kindergarten through second grade in Cochiti, a 53,000-acre reservation wedged between the blunt-peaked Jemez Mountains and the Rio Grande. “She is really excited about helping me teach the kids about Jesus.”
Suina’s classes are made up of small but enthusiastic groups of two to 10 children that meet every Sunday after St. Bonaventure’s sole 8 a.m. Mass. Two other volunteers round out the church’s religious education staff: Suina’s mother devotes most of her Sundays to teaching confirmation prep and taking Communion to shut-ins, while another parishioner prepares a handful of youngsters for First Communion. There currently is no program for middle school students, and Masses are celebrated by a traveling priest.
Such dedication to the faith, despite less-than-ideal circumstances, illustrates the kind of tenacity that garners the attention of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, established by American bishops in 1874 to assist evangelization efforts in underserved Native American communities.
Although 90 percent of the Native Americans who live on New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo Indian reservations are Catholic by baptism, many do not have access to faith formation opportunities that are standard in larger, more affluent parishes. The training of current and future catechists – and providing the materials fledgling Catholics need to more actively practice their faith – requires discretionary funds that many mission churches simply do not have.
“We teach with whatever (materials) we can gather. I’ll say, ‘Oh, crayons are on sale!’ Even paper can get expensive,” said Suina, who pays for materials out of her own pocket, supplements her syllabus with ideas from the Internet and works with a local schoolteacher to access free copies of a children’s bulletin. While the program does have catechism books, children are not permitted to write in them “because they must be used by next year’s class,” she notes.
Still, St. Bonaventure’s religious education classes are rich in faith-filled content and fun, featuring Easter egg hunts, card writing for area priests, elaborate All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day ceremonies, and a “Birthday Party for Jesus” at Christmas.
On feast days, Suina’s students convene at Cochiti’s central plaza to take part in their pueblo’s traditional songs and dances – expressions of prayer that fuse both Native American and Catholic traditions. For example, a dance might thank God for his blessings on the harvest, while another might seek the saints’ intercession for the health of children, the elderly and the sick.
“We teach the children that their Catholicism and their Native traditions are the same,” said Suina, who instructs her religious education students in both English and Cochiti’s native language of Keres. “We go and we help dance, we go help when someone passes away. We help (the children) understand that everything we do within the community, everything we do within our lives, also intertwines with our faith in Jesus and God and the saints.”
Because there is no parish hall, students meet in the modest adobe house where Suina’s grandmother was born, a short uphill walk from the church.
“We have so much fun with the kids!” Suina said, noting that even her youngest students are grasping important elements of their faith. A public school teacher recently shared with Suina how one of her CCD students, after drawing a cross for a test, said the figure was “just like the cross Jesus died on.” The boy followed up by drawing angels.
“I was really excited about that!” Suina said. “My students are retaining the information. It’s really exciting to see how they’re learning!”
Jammed classes in Jemez
As Cochiti’s ministerial leaders advance their case for assistance from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, adults hungry for formation have been packing religious education classes in the Jemez Pueblo, 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque, thanks to a pair of seed grants from the bureau.
Last May, 80 adults and five high school juniors from Jemez’s San Diego Mission Church completed their preparations for confirmation – a level of interest that forced the relocation of the confirmation Mass to Santa Fe’s 1,600-seat Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
“We have a little, tiny church – there are maybe 440 registered parishioners – and we had 80 adults confirmed! Much larger parishes had maybe one or two adults (being confirmed) each,” said Margie Creel, one of San Diego’s six volunteer catechists. “Everybody was coming up to us asking, ‘How did you get that many people?’”
Creel, who has taught religious education for seven years, said she and her colleagues had to swim against a powerful tide. The closure 15 years ago of the parish’s mission school, founded by St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and overseen by Franciscan priests, has meant that there now are nearly two generations of Jemez Catholics “who don’t know Jesus” as well as their parents and grandparents did.
“Parents were coming to church saying, ‘I want to baptize this baby,’ but when the priest sat down with them, he learned that the parents hadn’t been confirmed; the (prospective) godparents hadn’t been confirmed,” Creel said.
So, in September 2012, armed with a $3,000 grant from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, San Diego’s catechists began offering better-equipped elementary CCD classes and accelerated sacramental preparation for adults living in Jemez and two neighboring pueblos – Zia and Santa Ana. Thirty-five men and women signed up for the initial eight-week series, the success of which snowballed into last spring’s class of 80 adults. A $5,000 follow-up grant from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions is building on the momentum.
“We had such an outpouring of interest in our classes! People were knocking on our doors saying, ‘Can you do it again? Can you do it again?’" Creel said, adding that many of the recently confirmed now are sending their children and friends for catch-up sacramental instruction.
Thanks to the infusion of funds, offerings once considered to be cost-prohibitive “extras,” such as off-site retreats for teens and books for a soon-to-begin Bible study, now are within reach.
Jemez’s catechists continually remind their students to give back to the funding source that is helping to reignite their faith: the American bishops’ annual National Black and Indian Mission Collection. Students also pay a flat fee of $50 for their religious instruction and have lunch together after their Sunday classes.
“(In the past) our First Communion classes had to use the same books for four years – the children couldn’t write in them because they had to be passed on,” Creel said, thrilled that her parish’s “teach-others-to-fish” approach to evangelization is bolstering the ranks of lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and catechists.
“We just confirmed all those people, so don’t you think some of them will want to come back and serve?” Creel said. “We tell (the confirmed) all the time: ‘You’re not done!’”
To learn how to assist evangelization efforts in the nation's Catholic Native American communities, visit the Bureau's website: www.blackandindianmission.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.