St. Joseph Apache Mission
The St. Joseph Apache Mission is nestled in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Springing up from this beautifully rugged landscape is the St. Joseph Mission Church, a striking neo-Gothic stone structure that serves as the spiritual home to the Catholic Apache of the reservation.
The St. Joseph Mission community consists of about 300 families spread out over 460,000 acres. A pastor of St. Joseph’s once compared the parish church to Noah’s Ark: a place of safety in a deluge. The deluge in Mescalero — as in so many Native communities — is poverty, broken families, violence and substance abuse. The spiritual witness and practical assistance offered by this Franciscan mission makes a real difference to the struggling Apache population on the reservation.
St. Joseph Church is, in itself, a powerful local symbol and a beacon of hope and beauty. A National Historic Landmark and a testimony to faith and determination, the majestic structure took more than 20 years to build. Its inspiration came from Father Albert Braun, OFM, who first came to Mescalero as a young Franciscan friar in 1916. Soon after he arrived, Father Al saw the need for a new church because the old adobe structure was too small and in poor condition. His work in Mescalero was interrupted by World War I. Father Al traveled to Europe as an army chaplain. Upon returning to Mescalero after the war, he was determined to build a church like the grand cathedrals in Europe. He considered the purpose of the new structure to be two-fold: to serve the needs of the Apache people of Mescalero and to serve as a memorial to those who had died in the war.
Father Albert received permission to build a church, but was given no funding. With only $100 left from his Army pay and a free pass to ride the railroad, he went to Philadelphia to see noted architect William Stanton. Inspired by the dream and determination of Father Albert, Mr. Stanton drew the plans as a gift. The foundation, which is seven feet deep in place, was set by a couple of volunteers in 1920. Construction of the church was officially underway.
Tony Leyva, a stonemason and friend of Father Albert’s from Santa Barbara, California, volunteered to come to Mescalero and help Father Albert build the mission church. Mr. Leyva asked only for room and board and to be returned to Santa Barbara to be buried next to his wife upon his death. Construction of the imposing church was completed mostly by volunteers, including Father Albert and several Franciscan friars.
All material used is native to the locality. In the winter, stone was quarried about four miles west of the mission in Bent, New Mexico. The stones were then hauled to the building site in the spring. The lime for the mortar was burned in pits near the mission. The stones were laid during the summer and fall. The timber for the ceiling and roof was purchased from a local sawmill, and the tiles for the roof and floor came from a pottery plant in nearby La Luz, New Mexico.
Today, the people of the parish are generous contributors of time, talent and treasure, but funding parish programs and operations in this poor community is a constant struggle. The parish depends on the generosity of people from other communities. More than a third of the people in Mescalero live below the poverty level. Youth ministry is particularly important here, as the median age on the reservation is 22. The Franciscan friars and other parish staff members strive to meet the needs of the community by journeying with the people, providing the sacraments, teaching, counseling, consoling and spreading the good news of God’s love.