In late July, Pope Francis apologized to the Native People during a visit to Canada, calling the forced cultural assimilation of the past a “deplorable evil” and “disastrous error.”
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” he said, according to Reuters.
Sr. Maureen Farrar, ASC, was kind enough to spend some time explaining her history and ministry in New Mexico with the Navajo Nation, where she spent 39 years in service, as it relates to the current news out of Canada. “We went to be with and among them, not to minister to them,” said Sr. Maureen. “Sr. Barb Smith and I went in 1982, and our intent was to be among the people and find out what they needed and how we could be of assistance. We knew of their mistreatment for many years and there was a lot of poverty, but that’s about all we knew.”
When Sr. Barb left after 24 years, Sr. Michelle Woodruff joined Sr. Maureen and they stayed another 15 years. After that time, Sr. Michelle was asked to work with women coming into the community. “She was leaving, and I knew it did not make sense to stay by myself,” said Sr. Maureen. “I’m 86 now and it was time.”
When the time came to leave, Sr. Maureen knew they had made a lasting impact. “We did some programs that were helpful to people – a variety of them,” she said. “We opened a used clothing shop, started an AA program, offered religious education, did some liturgical things, and when priests weren’t there we had prayer services.”
The Sisters were also instrumental in starting a volunteer fire department and worked with abused women and children. In the end, though, it was not easy for anyone. “There was a lot of sadness and distress – feelings of abandonment (among the Navajo),” said Sr. Maureen. “It’s been very hard, but I have contact with them pretty much once a week, maybe more.”
With regard to Pope Francis and the apology he offered in Canada, Sr. Maureen isn’t certain what impact that will have with the Navajo. “Native tribes really like to have their own tribal sovereignty recognized, so they would probably really like him to come here, too, but that’s probably not too realistic,” she said.
For Canada, though, it may matter a lot more. “For those in Canada, I think it’s very significant,” she said. “I think it is for the Pope, too.”
While an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoings can be a step towards forgiveness, it does not erase history. The wrongdoings in Canada, in Navajo Nation, and elsewhere have deep roots stemming from a variety of wrongdoings. “I think a lot of the problems that the people feel or face today are maybe based on a lot of this cultural assimilation. They had decent lives before the Army came and rounded them up. Their lives were not like what we have, but they were self-sufficient,” said Sr. Maureen. “They knew how to take care of problems between tribes. They could do all of that and they did it well. Then we came and tried to put our ideas about what is best into play and it messed up their lives. When they came back they had nothing.”
What they found upon returning was burned gardens, orchards, and whatever was left of their homes. “All they had was broken promises and a treaty that was broken over and over again,” said Sr. Maureen. “They still believe in the treaty. I cannot figure out why they keep going back to it when it’s been broken so often. They go to the government and say ‘but you said in the treaty.’ People have a lot of despair, discouragement, frustration, and anger.”
Now that the Pope has spoken in Canada, Sr. Maureen believes there can be positive repercussions. “I think there will be hope when the Pope meets with the Bishops of Canada,” she said. “He can lay out specific things they can do to help them heal.”
The healing process begins with an apology – it has to start somewhere – and that process aligns with the Adorers’ charism of reconciliation. “It has to begin with saying we are sorry, and from there you go to work together with the other party to come to a meeting of minds and hearts,” said Sr. Maureen. “Though it may be an impossible job. One gentleman presented The Pope with a headdress through proper protocols, yet some are saying you shouldn’t have done this for all of these reasons. It’s a problem that cannot be totally solved and a war that cannot be won, but that doesn’t let us off the hook for trying to make things better. Hopefully reconciliation will take place between the church and some people. Jesus didn’t bring everyone together either.”
The next important piece is follow through. Not just for the Pope, not just for the Adorers, but for everyone. “I think one of the things is when the Pope meets with Bishops that he emphasizes with them how important it is to continue what has begun and talk about the situation,” said Sr. Maureen. “Work with them so they will work with parishes and schools and wherever there are any records so that those can be made available to the people that need to have that information. Offer closure to find out what has happened. Make efforts to assist with discovery of burial places. The Vatican has artifacts – it’s been said that a lot of those were gifts to the Pope, but what does the Church need with those? If it would help the people couldn’t they be returned to the tribes? They may not be happy about that, but why does the Church need to hang on to those? It seems to me that would be a very sincere gesture of goodwill and certainly an effort to make things right. If it would help bring about reconciliation it seems like something we should do. But that’s just one little voice.”
This was very informative to me. I had no idea that the Adorers were so involved in working with the Indians to the extent that was explained in the article. Thank you for this information and the suggestions you gave .
I loved reading your views on this, Sister Maureen. Thank you for sharing your lived experience and how this translates into positive next steps. The first quote in the story says so much about your ministry, ‘we came to live among them, not to minister TO them.’ So insightful at a time when many of us were just becoming aware of needing to be this sensitive.