The Sisters of St. Joseph at San Xavier: 1873-1932 by Sister Alberta Cammack, C.S.J.

San Xavier
[STM H16]

A cloud of dust moved slowly across the desert following a small buggy that traveled toward the mission of San Xavier. The day was in early February 1873, and the occupants of the buggy were Indian Agent Doctor Wilbur, and Bishop Salpointe, a prelate responsible for the territory of Arizona under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Santa Fe. The two men discussed the opening of a school in the old mission and had planned this expedition to examine the possibilities.1

Of the project itself Bishop Salpointe wrote:

"...I owe to the good graces of one of these Indian agents, that of the Papagos, for having let me start a school for the children of that tribe; he thought that since these Indians have been Catholics for a long time, it would be an insult to them to give them masters of a different religion. He could have added that it would have been an insult to us also to take away from us a mission we have never stopped ministering to."

"Whatever the reason, I was grateful to receive it; and I have been here for the last three months supervising the workers, and getting things ready to start construction of the school as soon as possible. I have all reasons in the world to hasten the erection of this school; the present agent could be transferred any day and I fear his successor would be less likely to be well disposed towards us. The most important thing is to start. I am hoping to give this school to the Sisters of St. Joseph to administer, these being the same order as the Tucson Sisters, its success will justify it, thereby assuring us of its possession. The house earmarked for this work is part of the buildings of the old mission of San Xavier del Bac, located nine miles south east of Tucson. The repairs are nearly finished. All of the expenses which come up to ten thousand francs up to now, have been paid by the agent."2

As the Bishop stated, he was busy with the construction of the school, but the matter of the teachers was still to be settled. It would appear that Doctor Wilbur and the Bishop hoped for an immediate response from the Sisters in Tucson. The Sisters, however, were fully occupied with their teaching duties at the Academy, and no one could be spared.

Because of this, it was decided that the Bishop on his way to Rome would stop at Carondelet and make arrangements for more Sisters to accompany him on his return to Tucson.

He received a favorable answer to his request and on December 1, 1873, Sister Lucretia Burns, Sister Francesca Kelly, and Sister Mary Martha Dunne left Kansas City with the Bishop. A Mr. John Gilday went with them as far as Las Vegas, New Mexico, and a Mr. Plouf, a professor who had come thus far, continued on with them. They were met at Las Cruces by Father Antonio Jouvenceau who accompanied them for the rest of their journey, as the Bishop had planned to remain in Las Cruces to build his college. The three new Sisters arrived in Tucson January 27, 1874, together with Father Jouvenceau and Mr. Plouf.3

Anticipating replacements at the Academy, Sister Maxime Croisat and Sister Euphrasia Suchat had opened the school at San Xavier on September 2, 1873. Sister Francesca Kelly joined them after her arrival.

There were thirty-five children in school that first year, twenty boys and fifteen girls.4

The following year more children attended and their progress was noted by a government official who said, "these scholars have made marked improvement."5

Wilbur in his report of April 18, 1874 wrote that there were 84 scholars attending the school.

The school was organized and progressing well when it was closed in 1876. The Department of the Interior ordered the agency at San Xavier to be joined to that of the Pimas, and the Papagos were left without a school or an agent.

Strangely enough, just before the government's decision, a favorable report had been sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs which stated:

"The educational provision by the Government for these Indians has been attended with great success: which success is due to the Christian kindness and the unceasing toil of the Sisters of St. Joseph who are employed as teachers and who have charge of the school. One of the greatest difficulties encountered in educating the Indians is getting their children to daily attend school; owing to their habits of life, perseverance in any one thing becomes an intolerable burden to them."6

Much of the history about this early period of the Sisters of St. Joseph's work is found in these reports of government supervisors and agents.

Salpointe also described the work of the Sisters in his booklet, A Brief Sketch of the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, published in 1880. He wrote:

"The Indians were pleased with the way the Sisters treated the children, as they have declared several times to the Inspector sent by the Government to visit the Agency. Indeed, the Sisters did all in their power to make themselves useful in the tribe. Besides teaching the children, they visited the sick and took care of them during the leisure time left by the school. It was not long after the school had been established, that a good number of the young Indians could make a fair show in spelling and reading. Gradually the teachers and pupils overcame the great difficulty of understanding each other, and it was no little pleasure for visitors of the school to see the Sisters speaking now in English, then in the language of the tribe, and being answered by the pupils in either language equally as well. The teaching, besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, embraced household work for the young girls. The Indian children were not very regular in attendance, still, the classes were numerous enough to be conducted with success. Though the school lasted only a short time, it has not been fruitless. This can be seen by the manner in which some of the pupils have regulated their way of living since."

Neither the Bishop nor the Sisters had sufficient funds to continue the school, and the lack of an agent and the uncertainty of government policies left the Indians at San Xavier in a deteriorating condition. Their plight was described by a visitor in 1882:

"The Papago are not as industrious as formerly and do not have quite as many cattle or raise as much grain as in the old days. This is owing to the withdrawal of the Government Agent in 1876, since which time they have had to shift for themselves. They raise a kind of cotton, from which they make blankets and what little clothing they wear ... we find them this year in a comparative state of starvation."7

It was twelve years from the school's closing when the Sisters again determined to take on the task of reopening the school, hoping to find support to finance their work from the Sisters at the Academy and at St. Mary's Hospital which had been opened in 1880. They also begged donations from their relatives and friends. Occasional visitors to the mission and the people of Tucson were also generous in assisting them.

Sisters Florence Benigna O'Reilly, Agnes Orosco, and Bernadette Smith offered themselves for the work. Arriving at the mission, they found the church together with the former school rooms and living quarters in a ruinous condition.

Bats were living in the church and other creatures had intruded into the buildings. At once the Sisters began the task of cleaning out the debris and setting out pans of sulfur to fumigate the rooms. For several weeks after the fumigation, it was necessary for the Sisters to sleep under canopies to protect themselves from falling insects.

With their own living conditions improved, the Sisters set about improving the condition of the Indians who had suffered from years of neglect.

The adult Papagos no longer attended Mass; but as they were willing to send their children to school, the Sisters went around the reservation recruiting pupils, offering the children picture cards of the saints together with colorful ribbons and beads.

The poor little ones came to school without shoes or stockings,. The girls wore cheap calico dresses; the boys, shirts of flour sack material. For those who came to school hungry, the Sisters gave them food out of their own meager portions. To remedy this situation, the Sisters asked the Bishop's permission to sell blankets and fancy work to the tourists in order to provide the children with a lunch of beans and crackers.

After the duties of the day, the Sisters visited the huts to take medicine to the sick and to attend the dying. They showed their concern for all, and gradually they were able to persuade the Indian men and women to better their living conditions. Men tended their fields and planted crops. Women kept their homes in order, and in time became interested in the strange humming instrument that did such wonders with cloth and thread. The Indians did what they could to provide for themselves; and when times were bad, Indian women could be seen on the streets of Tucson carrying loads of firewood, pottery, or baskets which they hoped to sell as a means of livelihood.

Along with academic studies, the children were instructed in cleanliness and domestic skills. They enjoyed picnics on feast days and dances -- the girls going in line with a little dance step as they carried a branch or small bush, the boys all the while providing the song. Realizing the interest of the young men and boys in music, Sister Marsina started a fund to provide band instruments; and with a little time, some training, and practice, a group was on its way to becoming a popular band for dances and celebrations in town and on the reservation.

Hardships were many: the cold of winter, the lack of water, and the difficulty of keeping a supply of food. Providence, however, provided a substantial gift -- a rooster and two hens. These produced more chickens and some eggs. The eggs especially were prized, and it was on one occasion when a Sister left her classroom to check for eggs at the hen house that she discovered she was not alone in awaiting the precious moment when the egg should appear. In one corner was a snake and in the other, a skunk. The hen surveyed her audience with a calm eye, there was a slight shifting of feathers, and Sister was able to secure the prize. This, however, was not without the skunk's disapproval. Sister returned from her quest, but immediately it was evident that her presence was not acceptable; so class was dismissed for the day. The early dismissal was celebrated that night when the boys expressed their delight by carrying aloft their trophies -- the snake and the skunk suspended on sticks.

With no nearby resources, the Sisters went to secure supplies every two weeks in a horse and buggy loaned for the occasion by St. Mary's Hospital. The roads were poor and there were no bridges over the river or washes which proved impassable in flood season. Because of the inconvenience of requesting transportation from others, the Sisters finally decided to secure a horse and buggy for themselves. The Catholic Indian Bureau sent $50.00 and Father Gerard supplied the rest for the purchase of the buggy. Mother Provincial gave $40.00 for the horse, and the hospital sent a harness. The Indian Agent gave four acres to raise barley and hay to feed the horse; but as the Sisters were unable to work the land, they went halves with the Indians who worked it for them. It was a proud day when the Sisters were able to drive their own buggy into town.

Repairs at the mission and new additions came gradually. Bishop Bourgade collected money to restore the church which was being damaged by the rains and was in danger of collapsing. The Papagos themselves, contributing out of their meager earnings, provided a floor for the church. Later Bishop Granjon made extensive repairs. New classrooms and a small sewing room were added at the school, and a hall to serve as a kitchen and dining room for the children. A ceiling was put in the Sisters' quarters; and with the installing of a windmill to pump water, washing facilities and lavatories were provided.

Money from Mother Katherine Drexel helped with the expenses, but as her own Indian and Negro missions increased this support was withdrawn in 1910. It then became necessary to ask for government assistance. The government agreed to support the school by paying the teachers a salary and to provide the children with a meal each day together with supplying material for clothing. The boys, moreover, were given manual training, and with what they learned were able to construct creditable houses. The first adobe house replaced a brush hut in 1900. Others followed until soon a village of neat comfortable houses appeared.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph served at San Xavier for forty-four years; however, Indian Agents were not always supportive, and in 1932 government funds were no longer available to them. The Sisters withdrew at that time and the administration of the mission complex passed to the Franciscans who agreed to care for it.

The early Sisters who worked at the mission have gone, and others have built on their efforts and upon the earlier work of the clergy during the Spanish and Mexican eras. The mission itself proclaims the work of Father Kino who laid the foundations of its first church and the work of the Spanish Franciscans who built the present structure together with the later efforts of the Bishops who restored the mission to its original beauty. It is not possible to think of the mission without thinking of those who labored there in the past and those today who treasure its heritage as it stands lonely and solitary in the desert continuing to serve those for whom it was established.

1. The Arizona Citizen, February 22, 1873
2. Les Missions Catholique - a letter of May 31, 1873
3. Arizona Missioners Who Went to Arizona in 1873 - Sister Monica's notes - Carondelet Archives
Monica's notes - Carondelet Archives
4. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1873, Archives CBIM
5. Letter of J. W. Daniels, U.S. Inspector, to Hon. E. P. Smith, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Washington D.C., November 2. 1874. Archives CBIM
6. Letter of Indian Agent, John W. Cornyn to Hon. E. P. Smith, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Washington, D.C., September 14, 1875. Archives CBIM
7. Arizona, 1882, L. Vernon Briggs

Additional information and resources on the Carondelet Sisters may be found at other research institutions. Consult the references page prepared by Sister Cammack.

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