St. Francis Apache Mission
Located in the town of Whiteriver, Arizona, St. Francis Mission serves a population scattered across 2,600 square miles of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Home to the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the area is breathtaking and diverse, featuring wooded mountains, dramatic river canyons and sagebrush plains. In spite of the natural beauty of the reservation, life for many of its residents is difficult. More than 50 percent live at or below the poverty line, and roughly one in two adults have not graduated from high school. The reservation’s economy is based largely on a nearby resort and casino, plus a local timber mill, yet unemployment remains high. The suicide rate among the White Mountain Apache is significantly higher than the national average, and alcohol abuse and violence are persistent problems.
The Franciscan friars have ministered among the White Mountain Apache for nearly a century. Father Eddie Fronske, OFM, the current pastor of St. Francis Mission in Whiteriver, has served the residents of the reservation for nearly 30 of those years. As a priest, he is responsible for providing pastoral care — including sacramental ministry and faith formation — to the local Catholic population in this remote region of eastern Arizona. Father Eddie, however, brings another approach to mission work as well. Based on his three decades of experience in Whiteriver, he believes that the Apaches, once the recipients of missionary care, have now become missionaries themselves. As he sees it, a large part of his role as pastor is to establish a bridge between the Apache community and the general population, thereby allowing others to learn about God from the White Mountain Apaches.