Episode 25 New Mexico, 1966
“I Am Home” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen
The New Mexican July heat is invasive to the body but not to the adobe churches that hold onto the coolness of winter, releasing a gray coolness slowly throughout the summer. I have a feeling, walking into this one, that I am walking into palpable silence. A lid, or a large gentle hand, seems to descend on our voices. I never tire of going into these old Indian churches. Each one has its characteristic dust smell, the smell of time. I do not expect to emerge as a Catholic, or even as a believer, I am a pagan by birth. But surrounded by the simple whitewashed walls and dark beams, my imagination is awakened, and I am joined by countless generations of ancestors of my friend, Georgia Abeita.
I seem to hear the shuffling of moccasins filing in for the Mass, and to hear the voices of the children raised in song. There would always be more women and children than men, as in many other cultures. The little girls are dressed in their colorful best, with black shining hair, made clean for Sunday service by washing in rainwater and yucca. Little boys, bored like most other little boys, shuffle their feet and long to be outside as soon as the priest finishes his prayers. The absence of pews makes the hope of a short sermon a significant consideration.
The people in Isleta are involved in a bitter religious struggle,. The priest who was here for 9 years was not a man who understood the Indians. He wanted to make them give up their Indian ways and just be Catholics. The people wanted to be both. He spent most of his time down-grading them, instead of teaching them, and even had a part of the plaza where the people danced covered in cement. This might not sound so bad, but these people believe they cannot dance on anything but the soil, or God won’t hear them. So this was really a serious matter with them, and did not endear the priest. Finally, after asking the archbishop for 8 years for a new priest with no success, Georgia’s cousin Andy Abeita, who is the governor this year, ordered the priest out of the village. Monseignor Stadtmueller, or “Father Fred” as they called him, refused to go, and instead of handling the situation more diplomatically, Andy handcuffed him and they led “Father Fred” out of the village.
Naturally, the priest had some followers, and this divided the village, and led to a great deal of bitterness. Even whole families were split by this action. The summer we were there, in 1966, an attorney had been called in, but the council members refused to listen or work with him. In the meantime, the priest had taken all the valuable Navajo rugs, the hand carved stations of the cross, paintings, etc. from Isleta to his new church which is a few miles away.
Amusingly enough, this was not the first time an Abeita governor had ousted a priest, as Georgia’s great-great grandfather threw the priest out of the village in his day as well. That time he was followed by several villagers, set upon and killed. They packed the body in a cottonwood coffin, and brought it back into town. He is buried someplace in the village, and due to a freak water table in the area, the coffin rises on occasion. (Or so it is said.)