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GALLUP-STMICHAEL Nov-30-2011 (1,070 words) With logo posted Nov. 16 and photos posted Nov. 17 and Nov. 30. xxxn

'It's amazing to walk' grounds of school founded by saint, says nun

A teacher works with a student in science class at St. Michael Indian School in St. Michaels, Ariz. (CNS/Bob Roller)

By Julie Asher
Catholic News Service

ST. MICHAELS, Ariz. (CNS) -- So what's it like to follow in the footsteps of a saint?

"I can tear up over that," said an emotional Sister Kathleen Kajer, president of St. Michael Indian School, founded on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona by St. Katharine Drexel in 1902. "It's amazing to walk these grounds."

Sister Kathleen has been at the school since 1995, first as elementary school principal, then development director and now president for three years. She belongs to the religious order founded by St. Katharine, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

If St. Katharine were to visit the school today, she'd see the original school building, whose construction she oversaw. She'd notice additions made to the campus over the last century. And she'd marvel at the school's foray into "green" technology -- a small wind turbine, a large solar water-heating system and solar-electric system.

But the Philadelphia heiress who devoted her life and inheritance to ministering to Native Americans and African-Americans would be pleased to see something else -- that the mission she laid out for the school remains unchanged.

"When she opened this school, I think she had three major things in mind. One was to teach the Navajos the love of God, how much God loves them," Sister Kathleen said in an interview with Catholic News Service. "The Navajos have always been very spiritual people but did not know a personal God, so that was very important."

Secondly, St. Katharine wanted "to invite them to the Catholic faith, to the Eucharist, and thirdly, to provide quality education so that they had the same options in life as anybody else in the country," she said, adding that Katharine Drexel "had a very good education herself and she saw how the Native Americans were cheated out of land because they didn't have enough education."

St. Michael Indian School in St. Michaels is one of many schools and missions St. Katharine and her sisters established around the country, many of them in the West and the South.

In the 1890s, St. Katharine and a couple of her sisters first visited the territory that in 1939 became the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., covering northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.

In 1896, St. Katharine purchased the land on which the school would be built in 1902. Members of her order came to teach and administer what was then a grade school. Not far from the school's campus is the Franciscans' St. Michael Church and their friary; Franciscans from the Cincinnati province arrived in 1898 to minister to the Navajo.

Today, the school has kindergarten through 12th grade; a high school was established in 1946. "This is the oldest continuously operating school on the reservation -- public or private," said Sister Kathleen.

Total enrollment is 344 students; 126 in the high school and 218 in kindergarten through eighth grade. Ninety-five percent are Native American, mostly Navajo. Hispanics and Anglos make up the other 5 percent of the student body.

Tuition covers less than a quarter of what it really costs to educate a student, said Sister Kathleen. "We're definitely a mission school."

"Just about every family pays something," she explained, but most students also receive some kind of scholarship based on family size and income; a few scholarships are awarded based on academics.

The school receives some funding from organizations such as the Catholic Church Extension Society in Chicago and the Washington-based Black and Indian Mission Office, which includes the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.

St. Michael Indian School's history and the Catholic Church's ministry in the area is "a whole social justice piece that has been very important," Sister Kathleen said.

"You have grandmothers and great-grandmothers who know how to read and write because of St. Michael," said Tracie Lee, who is principal of the elementary school and also teaches first-graders.

Lee, who is Navajo, is a former student. She came as a third-grader, graduated from the high school there and returned in 1990 as a professional.

"I know that I would not be in this capacity if it weren't for this school," she said, "and I would not have the same outlook on life (or) meet challenges with the same confidence that I was taught as I grew up in this school."

Like Sister Kathleen, the school's academic counselor, Sister Jeanette Kinlicheeny, emphasized that St. Michael's aim is to provide quality Catholic education and open "the door to Catholic prayer life."

The majority of St. Michael students are not Catholic, noted Sister Jeanette, a Navajo who has been a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament since 1958.

But whether they follow traditional beliefs or those of another denomination, Sister Jeanette said, she emphasizes the harmony between Catholic teaching and tribal beliefs, such as praying for healing and respecting the sacredness of life. She also tells students "we have another tradition we try to keep alive every day and that is that we are all brothers and sisters."

"This place prepared me so much" for college, said senior Aaron Bia, 17. After graduation, he wants to enter a pre-med program. His goal is to become a cardiologist, then return to the Navajo reservation to be with family and "to help my people as a doctor."

"My value is family first, family first, family first," he added.

Bia has attended the school since the fourth grade. His family lives in Chinle, about an hour away.

Asked about life on the reservation, Bia said it "is somewhat challenging but I think it is a good way to live." It has taught him life skills, he commented. "As a young Navajo man, I have to haul wood, I have to haul water. ... I am the oldest. I'm responsible for house chores. I help my grandparents with their livestock. ... Not too many people know that outside the reservation."

Sister Kathleen lives in Fort Defiance, about seven miles from the school. Having grown up on a Minnesota farm, she likes the rural life.

On her morning drives to school, she's often "checking out the newborn calves or colts, other times God's nature," she said. In the evening, she might see an elderly lady "who will be taking her flock of sheep back to the corral."

"It's a beautiful land (with) poor people, struggling people," she added, "but I like to think I'm making a little bit of difference in helping to improve their lives."

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Editor's Note: The Black and Indian Mission Office assisted CNS in setting up various interviews for this story. Information about the mission office is available at www.blackandindianmission.org.


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