The saints of the San Solano Mission

St. Catherine’s Church in Topowa, AZ.

A few weeks ago we visited the San Solano Missions located in the tribal lands of the Tohono O’Odham Nation southwest of Tucson. Our short visit was hosted by Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, O.F.M., one of two Franciscan friars whose salaries Catholic Extension supports.  Together with his Franciscan brother Fr. Ignatius DeGroot, O.F.M., Fr. Ponchie is charged with the pastoral care of those living in some three  dozen villages spread out across territory roughly the size of Connecticut. Nearly every village has its own chapel or sacred space, rising up from the sparse desert floor like the countless century-old Saguaro cacti that surround them.  Each, along with an adjacent feast house, is the heart of its spiritual and social life.

Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, one of the Franciscan friars supported by Catholic Extension, smiles proudly in front of St. Catherine’s Chapel.

When we sat with a half dozen residents of the village of South Komlic (don’t try finding it on the map) in one of the simple – and aging – chapels that dot the vast expanse of borderland, we heard the stories of generations of families connected to the land and to the Church through sacred spaces like the one we were sitting in. Stories like those of Jennie Urbina, whose grandmother grew up in South Komlic and remembers her hosting the priest each Sunday after Mass for lunch.

“The Church was part of their life, and part of my life.  It is a special place to come for encouragement, emotionally and spiritually.  We’re all related.  This is my home and these are my family,” Jennie explained about her neighbors sitting around her.

For Louis Norris, the chapel is the place where the past, present and future meet.

“We honor the saints here, the same way we honor each other,” he reflected. Honoring his neighbors does not stop at the chapel door for Louis.  He assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly. He was visiting 21 or 22 men and women the last time he counted.  His outreach is simple but profound. “I’m connected to them and inspired by what they say.  And I keep it in my heart and then give it back here, the church.”

The patronal feast day of each village is the pinnacle of Catholic life here. Most villages will host a big feast day celebration every other year to honor the saint to whom their chapel is dedicated.  Sitting in St. Jude’s humble chapel in South Komlic, no bigger than 400 square feet and home to more than six decades of sacred liturgies and community gatherings, I began to understand the deep connection this unique community has to each of its chapels and the significance of Catholic Extension’s support.

“The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint. That’s where they live,” Fr. Ponchie explained. He described how on feast days everyone brings the statue of the saint they keep in their home to the chapel for the celebration. On those special occasions, the chapel will be filled with saints.

While we had missed St. Jude’s celebration by just a few days and all of the statues of him and his friends had made their way back to places of honor in the homes nearby, a few saints still remained – the living saints of St. Jude’s Chapel – faithful men and women like Fr. Ponchie, Louis, Jennie and their neighbors, whose collective memory and daily commitments keep the Catholic faith alive for the people of the San Solano Missions.

Who are the saints that keep the faith alive in your community?

Louis Norris (far left), who assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly, stands together with his Catholic family outside St. Jude’s.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Frank on Twitter.

1 thought on “The saints of the San Solano Mission

  1. Hello. This is a fine article. I’m the managing editor of The New Vision, the newspaper of the Diocese of Tucson, and I’d like to request permission to reprint this article in our newspaper’s May edition. We will gladly give credit for the work as you wish.

    Thank you.

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