The Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Johns Indian School, Komatke, Arizona by Sister Alberta Cammack, C.S.J


In 1901, two Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Barbara and Sister Anna de Sales, set out for St. John's Indian Mission at Komatke. They left Tucson traveling by train northward toward Phoenix; however, on the trip it was found that the railroad trestle over the Gila River had been partially torn away, the damage done by a flood caused by heavy rains of the night before. As it was impossible for their train to continue, they realized that their only means of reaching the train on the other side was to cross the unstable remnant of the bridge on a handcar. The Sisters and several passengers decided to take the risk. The bridge held up and thus it was, with great relief, that the Sisters continued their journey.

A third Sister assigned to St. John's was Sister Mary Joseph, who awaited the travelers in Phoenix, and the subsequent journey of seventeen miles to the southwest was begun two days later. They traveled by buggy through the desert heat with the horse plodding slowly along and on reaching Komatke they found little to lift their spirits. A small building with a dirt floor was to be their convent, and the only other building was a church which had to serve during the week as a school.

The mission offered very little even in basic necessities; however, despite this dreary outlook, the Sisters took up their work with a brave heart. In the early days of St. John's, life was primitive. Cooking was done out-of-doors in big pots. When dormitories were added, the children slept Indian fashion on the floor; and on wash day they were obliged to wrap themselves in blankets while their clothes were washed along the banks of the river and hung on bushes to dry. Water at the mission was mostly undrinkable because of its salt content until they were able to dig a well deep enough to reach good water. $2,000 was sent for this purpose by a priest from the Catholic Indian Bureau who had visited the mission and who had been given a drink of the unpalatable water.

The Sisters worked hard together, sharing and supporting each other. They mended on Saturdays while one of the Sisters read from spiritual books. This was followed by prayers for the deceased members of the congregation. Thus the spirit of the little community flourished despite the difficulties of the mission; and at Christmas, although they had little to celebrate with, they found ways to make little presents for each other. One such simple gift was a decorated bottle containing salt and soda to be used for washing their teeth.

During the priest's absence, the Sisters held funerals and devotional services. Mother Anna de Sales, with one of the Indians as interpreter, read the Gospel using the lessons learned from it to instruct the Indians in the essentials of Christian living. The Indians found difficulty in becoming accustomed to a different lifestyle and so it was that an Indian man selected from donations sent to the mission what he considered proper attire for a funeral. To the surprise of Sisters he appeared in church clad in what to him was a lovely red union suit.

The Pima Indians were extremely poor depending on the rains to irrigate their crops. They had no government support and when the rains failed to come they provided meat and flour for themselves by selling firewood.

Besides teaching, the Sisters worked in the laundry, kitchen, and other areas throughout the mission. On one occasion Sister Irene, who had charge of the dining room, reported that the tables had been turned over and the dishes scattered on the floor. This had happened about three or four times although she had carefully locked the doors and windows. On inquiring, it was found that other strange things had been happening. The children told Sister Euphrasia about hearing noises at night; and Sister St. Brigid on going to the cellar one evening had encountered a tall, dark figure, who bent down, blew out her lantern, and then laughed a strange and satanic laugh.

As a result of these stories, Mother Anna de Sales told Sister Irene to scatter ashes on the dining room floor to see if dogs might have caused the havoc. The next morning the room was in disarray, but there were no tracks in the ashes. The priest was away, but the Sisters started special prayers and had the children pray.

When the mission priest, Father Justin, returned he heard the details. Immediately he and another priest started a severe fast, staying in the room and saying the prayers of exorcism. After a time a small snake was seen which crawled from the room and mysteriously disappeared. The struggle with the powers of darkness left the Sisters shaken, but after the exorcism things returned to normal. Sister St. Brigid worked in the kitchen, cooking and watching the little ones as she helped them learn English. The other Sisters continued their regular work which, besides the scholastic courses, including sewing, fancy work, and instruction in music and orchestral training.

As buildings were added to provide more -- dormitories, a laundry, dining room, and kitchen -- there was more room for additional boys and girls. The number finally reached three hundred. The first cow was paid for by Sister St. Brigid's sister, Mary, so that the children could have milk. The older girls were taught how to cook. Four girls at a time worked in the kitchen, keeping the fires burning, watching the pots, and making butter. Beans were a main part of their diet. Meat was scarce, but when they could have it, it had to be cooked immediately as there was no refrigeration.

The Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Phoenix brought supplies when they could. Saint Boniface Indian School in Banning sent dried apricots, prunes, and peaches, which when washed and cooked provided what fruit they had. Women from Phoenix brought them food and helped with the annual fiesta at which meals were prepared for over six hundred people. There were many friends among those who came.

The Sisters of St. Joseph continued at St. John's until 1938. Their work covered thirty-seven years of growth and struggle. A long time has elapsed since our Sisters served at the various Indian Schools and Missions: at San Xavier, Tucson; at St. Anthony's, San Diego; at Fort Yuma Government School, California; at St. Boniface; Banning; and at St. John's, Komatke.

In memory we honor and bless those Sisters who lived with and loved the Indians they cared for, and who worked so long and so hard in difficulties and privations we do not even understand.

They put their hands to strong things in their youth and active years, and when that time came to a close they carried those they had served always in their hearts.

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