In these unprecedented days of confronting the new virus, nobody’s life is normal; but for a missionary pastor of one of America’s largest Indian reservations, managing the new reality is an enormous feat, especially as COVID-19 cases start popping up nearby.
Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez is pastor of San Solano Missions, serving the Tohono O’odham Nation, west of Tucson, Arizona.
The mission comprises more than 11,000 Catholics, who represent about 85 percent of the reservation’s population.
Catholic Extension has long supported the salary of Father Ponchie to carry out his missionary vocation in this vast territory, which is the size of Connecticut. The reservation has 70 villages, and only half have a chapel or church. He typically travels great distances daily to reach Catholics: saying Mass, bringing Communion to the elderly and offering pastoral care.
But today, with COVID-19, he and his fellow friars are completely re-imagining how to serve their parishioners. They have created home worship aids that they are distributing to people. They are extending their ministry by phone.
They are featuring daily Masses on their Facebook page, which brings great comfort to their communities, but Father Ponchie recognizes the financial hardships that this presents to the mission.
“Without services, we have no collection,” he said. And he is also worried about the 90 percent of their income that comes from outside sources, such as Catholic Extension grants.
Father Ponchie knows that the faith communities of Tohono O’odham, which means “desert people,” are strong and able to confront challenging situations. He has seen it many times. But he worries that they will face even greater hardships ahead with this pandemic, given their extreme poverty, unemployment levels and rates of suicide. Since much of their lives is already so fragile, it’s difficult to imagine adding more stress.
“As we’ve had to cancel all religious services, one of the hardest parts is not being able to do funerals and memorials for the deceased,” he said. “These traditions are a sacred part of our local culture.” The friars are doing some Commendation Rites or Graveside Services, but with very limited attendance.
The first case of COVID-19 among the Tohono O’odham was recently reported, although nearly 50 have been reported in their county. Many more may come. Father Ponchie is praying for the health of his people.
As he finds new ways to serve his hurting people, he is reminded of his missionary calling, which always leads him in new directions. He knows each new foray into unchartered territory is based in love.
“Mission work, service and ministry flow from the reality of how much God loves us,” he said. “When we are loved, we love.”
San Solano Missions has served the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert since 1908.
Father Ponchie’s missionary spirit will lead them for many more decades. Catholic Extension will do everything possible to keep him going.
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