San Carlos Apache Mission

Located some 125 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, the San Carlos Apache Reservation is large — roughly 1.9 million acres, or about the size of the state of Delaware. The Franciscan friars of the St. Barbara Province established the San Carlos Apache Mission in 1918 to serve the Native people of the reservation. The friars have lived and ministered among the San Carlos Apache ever since, serving as parish pastors and in a variety of community outreach and support programs.

After years of their children being sent far away to boarding schools, Apache parents asked for a school to be built on the reservation. In response, the Franciscans established St. Charles Apache Mission School in 1965. The school has become one of the centers of the Christian community on the reservation. Two women’s religious groups — the Mercy Sisters and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament — have provided crucial assistance with the school.

The San Carlos Apache share many of the problems that face other tribes. In desert isolation with few job prospects nearby, the current unemployment rate on the reservation hovers around 85 percent. The vast majority of households, including the few that receive some form of government support, get by on $500 or less a month. Illness, violence and substance abuse accompany the widespread poverty.

Currently, Franciscan friar Gino Piccoli, OFM, served this community. Drawing from his background in the arts, he and the local Catholic community completed the difficult task of starting a “cottage” industry that employs some of the reservation’s poorest people. The industries teach traditional crafts and produce beautiful quilts, “burden baskets” (decorative forms of baskets originally used for gathering food) and other items for which the Apache are famous. These products are sold to the public at craft fairs and various other venues. All money raised remains with the local San Carlos Apache people.

San Carlos church is a beautiful assimilation of Apache culture plus traditions and the universal Catholic faith through the carpentry works of friar Gino. Currently, Franciscan friar Ignatius DeGroot, OFM, continues the work of many friars before him as pastor and minister of the community.