Father Albert’s Legacy — the Apache Christ church (St. Joseph’s)

Apache Christ Church

In 1916 Father Albert sat in the Tularosa, New Mexico train depot waiting for Ralph Shanta to pick him up and take him to the Mescalero reservation. This was his first assignment after becoming an ordained priest of the Franciscan order. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he came from a world of culture and comfort. This was not that world. Sweat poured down his back as he stared at the striated cliffs of the Sacramento Mountains. The sun seemed to hit those walls and bounce back with increased intensity. Cacti and mesquite thorns pricked his flesh; images of punctured St. Sebastian flooded his imagination. He had no idea where he was going or what would become of him.

Ralph showed up in a rickety cart drawn by two Spanish mules. Father Albert was hauled aboard and they set off up the canyon at a spine jarring pace. Two hours later, just when Father Albert was about to volunteer to walk the rest of the way, they reached the tribal center at Mescalero. Excitement turned to dismay when he was dropped at his new parish. Could this be the Lord’s House?

The dilapidated adobe had a leaky roof, earthen floors, no windows, and crumbling walls. His quarters, large enough for a cot and trunk, were behind a blanket in the back. The front part of the building was for services. Father Albert took it all in and set about making the place as comfortable as possible. His enthusiasm carried him over this first hurdle.

It was customary for Franciscan priests to earn their daily bread from donations made by the faithful. Father Albert knew he was in trouble after he gave his first sermon. The collection plate held 17 cents. He gave part of that to the interpreter. Most of the older Apaches did not speak English. At that, he didn’t know if the interpreter was translating correctly. The flock might be hearing words God never intended them to hear.

Apache “Mountain Spirit Dancers” painting

A few came regularly to the run down parish. Most of his congregation was scattered around the 460,661 acre reservation. He would have to go to them. His parents sent him money to buy a horse. Others loaned him a saddle and rifle. It might take two days to reach the people who lived on the far side of 12,000 foot Sierra Blanca, sacred mountain of the Apache. With biscuits and cheese in his saddlebags, and the priestly paraphernalia to say mass, he would traverse the nether regions of the reservation. Along the way he would shoot a deer, rabbit or grouse. He was a crack shot, an accomplishment the Apache always admired. Besides, he found the welcome always warmer if he showed up with food. Monday through Saturday he might be riding around anywhere on the reservation. On Sunday he was always back in his little church.

Father Albert was learning Apache. He could feel the people beginning to accept him. Babies were baptized. The dead were buried. His influence touched the deepest part of their lives. His own deep love of religion gave rise to his appreciation for the spiritual nature of the Apache. When a visiting priest criticized him for permitting his parishioners to sing their traditional songs, Father Albert dismissed him with: “Their songs are also prayers.”

World War I took Father Albert away from his flock. He begged to go. The Order nodded yes. He served as Army Chaplin. His duties were to minister to the homesick and wounded, and to perform last rights for the dying. In his spare time he visited many of the great cathedrals of Europe. Stone. The idea of a stone church stuck in his head. He dreamed of creating such a church when he returned home to Mescalero. It would be a monument to all the brave young men who died in the war.

When he returned to his parish in 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Braun was committed to building a new church. Money was as hard to find as Victorio’s Gold. He explained his plan to the church members.

“We can do it,” Shanta Boy said. “There’s rock in the Bent quarry. Enough to build a big church. My boys are home. They can help.”

Others offered their sweat and muscle. The dream grew legs and walked. Then it flew. For a pittance they purchased two broken down Army trucks. They took the few working parts from each and made one truck that ran. With it they could haul stone from the quarry.

Apache Last Dinner painting on altar

Professional help also materialized. William Stanton, a fellow Chaplin Father Albert knew from the War, was also an architect. He helped design the construction blueprints. Perhaps the single most important contribution came from Mr. Antonio Maria Leyva, a stone cutter from Santa Barbara. A recent widower, the elderly Mr. Leyva offered to spend the rest of his life working for the Order. He asked only for food and shelter and to be buried next to his wife in Santa Barbara when he died. Mr. Leyva carved stone for seventeen years before his final request was granted.

Hundreds of people participated in building the church. Tiles came from La Luz. Timbers from Blazer’s Mill. Light fixtures from Juarez. Twenty years of physical labor from the Apache people. One man, Brother Salesious Kraft, Order of Franciscan Monks, was crushed to death beneath a boulder and is buried to the right of the church entrance. Begun in 1919 it was considered complete, although the windows were not yet in, in 1939.

Father Albert served again as Chaplin in WWII. He briefly returned to Mescalero, then he was transferred to Phoenix. He died at the age of 95 on March 6, 1983. Father Albert Braun is buried in the Sanctuary of the church.

St. Joseph Church is an imposing medieval structure on a knoll overlooking the Mescalero tribal center. It is 131 feet long, 64 feet wide and 50 feet high. An adjoining tower with a cross on top is 103 feet high. Passersby on U.S. 70 can’t help but notice the stone monolith. In the land of cactus and adobe it stands apart. The outside commands attention.

The difference is not just external. Inside, things are not the norm either. I visited St. Joseph Church on a weekday. At first I only noticed that it was inhabited by the expected Saints and Virgins. Then I began to see other figures that didn’t quite fit my ex-Catholic sensibility. In one alcove stands an Alan Houser style Apache Madonna. Nearby, welded metal fixtures on the wall are cut in lightning bolt patterns. Moon and rain symbols are painted on other pieces. Behind me, I look up and see a huge triptych of the Mountain Spirit Dancers. They are dancing in suspension above Sierra Blanca. Below them are portraits of Cochise, Geronimo, Victorio and Naiche.

As I make my way to the front of the church I see the most amazing thing of all. Above the altar, in the space usually reserved for Jesus, is a huge painting of an Apache holy man. The Apache Christ. He is dressed in ceremonial clothing, with a sun symbol painted on his upraised left palm and a deer hoof rattle in the right. At his feet is a basket with a grass brush, bags of tobacco, an eagle feather and cattail pollen. He too stands atop Sierra Blanca. The painting was done by Robert Lenz in 1990.

Right below the Apache Christ, painted on the front of the altar, are twelve Apache apostles seated at a table eating traditional foods.

Apache Christ painting

St Joseph church is not a monument to the soldiers of both world wars. It is a monument to Father Albert and the Apache people. For Father Albert it is a solid rock version of a dream come true. For the Apache people it is a house that holds a familiar god. They have re-created the creator in their own image. And why not? The blue-eyed Jesus of Nazareth never walked a mile in their moccasins. No one but the Apache Christ could know the full history of his people.