Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez is a missionary pastor who serves the people of Tohono O’odham, a Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, at San Solano Missions in the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona. The Franciscan Friars have been at the mission since 1908.
The Tohono O’odham Nation’s land base is nearly 5,000 square miles and straddles the United States-Mexico border west of Tucson. Its vast stretch of land is the size of Connecticut and the third largest Indian reservation in the country. It has one small town, Sells, which is the capital, and about 70 villages.
Tohono O’odham means “desert people” and about 13,000 members live at this location. Residents face serious problems including high suicide rates, increasing gang activity, rising unemployment, immigration issues and illegal drug trafficking.
More than 11,000 members, about 85 percent of the reservation’s population, are Catholic and served by the San Solano Missions. About 40 villages within the reservation have a church or chapel and the majority have Mass only once per month.
Father Vasquez joined the Franciscans in 1986 and became pastor of San Solano Missions in 2009.
With pastoral staff and volunteers, he offers pastoral care and provides sacramental preparation and religious education classes. He trains new lay leaders, visits people in their homes and brings comfort to prisoners on the reservation.
He also helps the Catholic faith on the reservation to grow through liturgy. He works hard to make liturgy reverent, engaging and participatory. His practice of maintaining a regular schedule of services for the many villages, whether it be Mass or a Communion service, provides reliability for the faithful.
His ministry entails driving great distances. As he travels from church to church, he typically arrives 30 minutes early to ring the bell, calling parishioners to Mass. He waits to welcome each person who arrives. Only a few of the churches have air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter.
Of particular importance are the celebrations of patron feast days for each chapel. He is always there to join the festivities. “The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint,” he explained.
“Mission work, service and ministry flows from the reality of how much God loves us,” he said. “When we allow ourselves to enter into that mystery, what else can come forth, except work, service and ministry to our mission. When we are loved, we love.”
Father Vasquez is beloved by the Tohono O’odham people. As his provincial minister, Franciscan Father David Gaa, noted, “He exemplifies the missionary spirit as he carefully and willingly works for people in economically disadvantaged and challenging circumstances. Many of the people he ministers to are migrants with little work and on fixed income. He lives the Gospel daily as a faithful servant who is committed to bringing joy to the people through his compassionate service.”