The thick mud of a Navajo Reservation back road has gotten the better of Father Cormac Antram's Chevy Blazer. We're stuck 10 miles from the nearest pavement, surrounded by sagebrush and spirits. But we have plenty of company.
About 50 Navajos have gathered at a private cemetery in Coyote Canyon, about 25 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M., to bury one of their own. Blanche Charlie was 84, a respected member of the tribe and longtime friend of Antram. The somber mood gives way when the crowd notices the Blazer's tires spinning, mud flying everywhere. Then the Navajo sense of humor kicks in.
"Come on, Father Cormac! Gun it!" calls one.
"Say a prayer, Father Cormac!" shouts another.
Four-wheel drive accomplishes the miracle this day, quickly delivering us to dry ground. But the mini-buzz created by the sound of Antram's name continues when he steps from the car. Almost everyone knows the 76-year-old priest, who stands out in the Franciscans' traditional full-length brown robe and white cord belt. The Navajos call these men ednishodi--those whose clothes drag along. But I notice something unusual: Not only do his name and dress draw notice, but so does his voice. It makes heads turn.
Antram--tall, balding, his face grandfatherly behind thick glasses--is standing among the circle of mourners at the grave site. One Navajo after another approaches to offer greetings. Antram doesn't so much work the crowd as it works him. When the prayer service ends, we climb back into the Blazer, heading west toward Highway 666 and blessed pavement.
"Was that reaction typical?" I ask.
"Well, yes, I'm afraid I am a bit of a celebrity," says the priest, breaking into a big smile at the thought. "I'll knock on the door of a hogan in the middle of nowhere, people I don't know, and when I start talking, their eyes light up. They'll say, 'Wait, I know you!' "
We take in the beauty around us. Snow lies in puzzle pieces on the ground. The Chuska Mountains, glowing pink under the high sun, dominate the horizon. Some Navajos hike to a natural rock altar at the summit, bringing with them a piece of turquoise, which they smash with another rock as an offering to the diyinii, their Holy People. The ritual links them to a history they not only embrace, but fiercely guard.
How is it then that these people who cling to their spiritual past make a celebrity of a Franciscan roaring around in a Chevy Blazer, an Irish Catholic priest whom many have never laid eyes on?
The Navajos know Antram from the radio, where he spreads the Catholic faith through "The Padre's Hour," his long-running gospel, news and talk show. With its fascinating mix of Catholic and Navajo traditions, the show has been an integral part of Sunday mornings on the reservation for 45 years. With the exception of 18 months in the mid-1960s, when another priest did the show, Antram has been the only host. Only a few programs--including Paul Harvey's and the Grand Ole Opry--have a longer tenure in American radio.
"The Padre's Hour" first aired May 8, 1958, on a small Gallup station, the result of an inspiration that hit Antram "like a bolt out of the blue" one day while listening to a Protestant-run broadcast. The notion to start a Catholic program might have been fueled by competition, but it got the idea up and running. It was an efficient way to reach out to the entire reservation, which covers 26,000 square miles across portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. When Antram arrived here almost 50 years ago, much of the reservation was not easily accessible. That remains the case today.
At every assignment, this doggedly persistent priest has found an empty room, hauled in his cranky reel-to-reel recorder, nailed acoustic tiles to the ceiling and taped his message. He has worked from an attic in Chinle, Ariz., a basement outside Window Rock, Ariz., even from the bishop's office in Gallup. Now the show is recorded in a former sewing parlor for nuns in Antram's current posting at St. John the Evangelist Church's Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Mission in Houck, a crossroads settlement in northeastern Arizona. Today "The Padre's Hour" has a powerful home on KTNN, the 50,000-watt tribal-owned station that reaches across the Navajo nation and well beyond. The show's continuing presence has become more important as the number of Franciscans on the reservation has declined over the years.
What drives the 30-minute show (calling it "The Padre's Hour" sounded better than "The Padre's Half-Hour") and keeps older, rural Navajos hunched beside their radios is that Antram does it in their language as well as English. The priest speaks Navajo and has translated Catholic prayers, which he or an assistant deliver in Navajo chanting. Antram's most frequently used closing prayer, which he recites in Navajo, is the Irish Blessing. It's about the road rising to meet you, the wind always at your back. But he gets the most response for Glory Be to the Father, a Catholic prayer that he chants with the melody of the Blessingway, the most deeply held of traditional Navajo chants.
The literal translation of the Navajo word for radio is "the wind that talks." For older Navajos living in isolation on a reservation that measures the size of West Virginia, sometimes the wind is all they have--along with Father Cormac on Sunday mornings.
"I'm amazed at the commitment Navajos have to that program," says Father Gilbert Schneider, the pastor at St. Michaels Mission in St. Michaels, Ariz. "The name 'Father Cormac' is more a category now than a private name. For a lot of Navajos in the remote areas, he's all they know about the church."
In nearly half a century with the Navajos, Antram has lived an obscure American way of life. The burial service he just left was relatively modern compared to some that he's attended. In keeping with the long-held Navajo fear of dead bodies, family members still use tree branches to erase their footsteps around a grave as they depart, an effort to keep spirits from tracking them. Others break burial shovels to pieces to prevent their use again. Another practice calls for mourners to kill a horse--either with a pistol or an ax blow between the eyes--to give the deceased a mount for the afterlife. At one funeral in the 1980s, a man actually asked Antram to shoot a horse. "I said it wasn't my job," says the priest, looking slightly aghast at the memory. "I don't think he wanted to do it either and was sort of pushing it off on me. But no matter what, you never want to speak against their traditions."
Antram could spin stories like these all day. A woman once summoned him to her trailer in the dead of winter to drive away the bad spirits she believed were pounding on her windows. He performed an exorcism in the family's living room and, as he did so, the banging on the windows intensified, sending the woman's 7-year-old daughter running to bolt the front door. A Navajo policeman arrived as Antram continued his reading, even more deep-throated than before. In the middle of the exorcism, he and the cop checked the windows and found no reasonable explanation for the banging, which diminished in severity as his invocation continued. He couldn't even find footprints in the snow around the trailer. "I became a believer that there was some kind of ghost bothering those people," he says.
Although Antram admits to being shaken by the experience, he speaks of it now matter-of-factly. The Roswell, N.M., native, one of eight children of a homemaker and a Western Union telegrapher, didn't know much about Navajo life and lore but felt an "attraction" to working with the Navajos. He arrived here newly ordained in 1954 at age 28. In his first months, he waded into the daunting task of studying the Navajo tongue. Antram even rounded up an interpreter and began knocking on doors, eager to memorize the inflections and rhythms of native speech.
"The language is so difficult, it took 10 years to be able to carry on a basic conversation," says Antram, noting that Navajo soldiers during World War II, the so-called Code Talkers, used their language as a code that the Japanese never broke. "It's a tonal language, like Chinese, so the slightest change in tone can change your meaning."
Antram also was instrumental in translating the Mass into Navajo and getting Vatican approval for its use, efforts that took a combined 20 years. Today Antram is the only reservation priest who says a Navajo Mass, although he insists that he's still not completely fluent.
"Learning the language has been [part of] his life's work, and that means more to Navajos than they let on," says Martin Link, a professor of Navajo history at the Window Rock, Ariz., campus of Dine College, a tribal institution. "He meets the Indians on their terms and is really the last of a breed that way." Antram says it's been essential in trying to "spread the message" on a reservation that often mixes, sometimes dizzyingly, tribal traditions with modern religious and cultural life.
The mass preceding Charlie's burial was held in Tohatchi at St. Mary's Mission, a tiny, white A-frame church set against a hillside. Prior to the start, mourners listened to flute music and fingered rosary beads as they prayed to a figure of the Christ child--a Navajo baby wrapped in a beautiful Indian blanket. As the casket was wheeled in, Navajo singers chanted and Charlie's son delivered the eulogy in his native tongue. But the Navajo Catholic deacon who conducted the burial service didn't speak Navajo, and somewhere at the back of the crowd a cell phone rang, playing John Philip Sousa.
For priests, working in such an environment is an uphill walk. According to the U.S. Census, there are 168,000 Navajos living on the reservation--slightly more than half their total population. The figure for Catholics on the reservation is mostly guesswork, although diocesan officials estimate about 40,000. But many of these maintain a loose affiliation at best, in part due to widespread poverty and unemployment rates around 50%. "If you're struggling to keep the lights on, you're not worrying about getting to Mass on Sunday," says Schneider.
On the night of the Charlie funeral, Antram visited Mary Watchman, a Navajo grandmother living in a canyon south of Houck. The howl of hound dogs greeted us outside Watchman's hogan--one circular room with a concave roof and a front door facing east to greet the morning sun, in the old-fashioned way. Watchman struggles to raise her granddaughter alone on Social Security and the sparse income she makes from selling beaded jewelry.
It was laundry day and piles of clothing were everywhere. Her granddaughter sat at the kitchen table finishing her supper of Froot Loops and milk. A stout wood stove against the wall helped ease the night cold, fueled by a stack of juniper logs. A short woman with her hair tied back, Watchman exuded a sense of calm. She sat on the tattered couch, folding laundry as she talked, expressing hope that the newly elected Navajo Nation president would come inspect a nearby bridge that had collapsed. But mostly she talked about her faith.
"It's important for me to have something to believe in, and for my granddaughter," Watchman says. "Besides, I'm going to die someday and I want to be buried in the church." She points to the priest. "Do you know that Father Cormac has buried my mom, my cousin, my nephew, and he baptized my two grandkids? That's the way it goes here over the generations."
"Now, remember our deal," Antram says.
"I remember, Father," Watchman says. "And I'll do the best I can."
Her truck has been broken for months, so the standing agreement is that if she can get herself and her granddaughter to the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. John's, Antram will drive them back home. But she has no phone, and even if she can find a ride, with the bridge out the trip is much longer over mud roads.
Sometimes a Navajo medicine man comes to her hogan to sing and chant the prayers she was raised on. Antram says some Navajos practice such traditional beliefs and still come to Mass. "If you ask why, most Navajos will say, 'The more prayers the better.' " The priest shrugs. "That's the way it is here. We sort of blink our eyes to the Native American Church. One of my good buddies is a head man for them, and he comes to Mass at my church."
Followers of the Native American Church use the hallucinogen peyote to achieve cleansing and renewal. The religion was brought to this reservation by Oklahoma tribes in the 1930s and later banned by the Navajo Tribal Council as a threat to traditional ways. Ever since the ban was lifted in 1967, however, the Native American Church has thrived here. Its members include Angela Barney Nez, also a parishioner at St. Mary's. "Peyote has played a part in my life from age 10 on," she says, "but so have the Franciscans."
With no hospital in their area of western New Mexico, Nez's mother traveled by wagon to the St. Michaels Mission clinic to give birth. Her father, Luke Barney, a sheep and cattle rancher baptized by the Franciscans, sent his children to the mission school, paying tuition in meat. The intersection of faiths sometimes created conflict.
"I remember a nun telling me peyote was paganism," says Nez, now 49. "And I said, 'Oh, no, it can't be. It's the Native American version of communion.' Peyote is a sacrament, and only by partaking of the sacrament and receiving forgiveness and cleansing, can we be worthy of approaching the creator."
This balance has been part of her entire life, as has Father Cormac. The Barney children lived by two strict rules: They had to sit still when the priest's voice came over their dad's transistor radio; and, during the week, he forbade them from using it. With good reason--the nearest place to buy new batteries was a day's horseback ride away. The program substituted for Mass when the family was staying at its sheep camp in the Chuska Mountains. Nez remembers her father building a fire in preparation for the show and her mom readying a feast of bacon, tortillas, coffee and goat's milk.
Luke Barney often held tribal prayer services at their home on Saturday nights. But the next morning he'd gather his children to listen to "The Padre's Hour." Today his daughter lives much the same way. Services for the Native American Church begin early on Saturday evening and continue all night, ending at noon the following day. Nez says that when she attends those services, she often leaves early to be on time for the Sunday Mass at St. Mary's.
"I don't see anything wrong with it because the two religions are actually very similar," says Father John Mittelstadt, the pastor at St. Mary's Mission. "They're both Christian in the sense that they place great importance on the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin, forgiveness and so on."
Nez relates that her father, now 96 and confined to a wheelchair, still listens to "The Padre's Hour." Last month he asked her to pick up his brother, who is 98, so the two men could listen together. "They like it because it helps them reminisce about easier times on the reservation, when there wasn't so much violence and trouble."
Navajo country is a place of extraordinary natural beauty. Newcomers driving on twisting tribal highways often find the task difficult, and not just because of the sheep that wander onto the road. At every turn the sights can mesmerize. A stretch of high desert--in alternating shades of pink, red and purple--can run for miles, tall mesas marking the skyline. In other places the road can break free of a narrow rock canyon and suddenly drop into an open meadow, where horses drink at water troughs. But the trouble Nez mentions is real.
"Every day you pick up the Gallup paper and the front page is full of murders, rapes and gang stories," says Antram. "A lot of young people go off the reservation and bring back big-city problems. There's a lot to deal with that wasn't here before."
For the Franciscans, dwindling numbers make the job more difficult. Today only 16 priests and brothers work on the vast reservation, down from about 40 in the 1970s, and few of them speak Navajo. Several churches have been shuttered, too, and St. John the Evangelist was nearly among them. In 1998, when superiors asked Antram to take it over, they said the building would be closed if he declined the assignment. He'd worked there before, from 1967 to 1975, and was horrified by its possible fate. "I couldn't let that happen," he says.
The two-story building, constructed in 1932 of native stone, dominates a hilltop above Interstate 40. Its top floor holds three huge classrooms. The bottom houses the church on one side and a succession of small rooms down a darkened corridor on the other. Antram lives alone in this great stone hulk, with its rattling pipes and old wood that calls out all sorts of ghostly expressions.
"Don't you get the jitters at night?" I ask.
"Yes, I do," he admits. "I suppose that's the worst of it, being lonesome."
Several nights a week the solitary priest vanquishes the quiet with his violin, filling the empty corridors with the beauty of Mozart or Bach. He also loves reading and writing history--for several years he wrote a column for the diocesan newspaper, and he's produced six regionally published books of history and religion. But he finds work more than plentiful. Antram has daily Masses, religious instruction and, of course, the radio show. He spends five hours every week in production, including writing scripts and taping, the latter with the help of two assistants--Carol Matt, a Navajo who lives nearby, and Dan Campos, a technician from Gallup. When he's done, Antram drives 35 miles to Window Rock to deliver the cassette to the station.
"The Padre's Hour" is paid programming, costing $125 per program to air, which Antram pays from donations since the show accepts no advertising. Two years ago he replaced his outdated recorder with a fancy digital model, a happy march of progress after 45 years. "I remember studying for the priesthood in Cincinnati and the seminarians spinning the radio dial to find Paul Harvey," Antram says. "This was the early 1950s, so I know at least one person has been on the air longer than I have. What's kept us going, to tell you the truth, is me. It's a lot of work, but I really feel there's a need for it, for people who wouldn't have contact with our church otherwise."
One such listener recently wrote Antram to tell him she was so eager to get the calendar he mails out every Christmas that she walked seven miles from her hogan on the rim of Canyon de Chelly to the post office in Chinle, Ariz., then home again.
Ironically, though, Antram preaches in Navajo to a population that, increasingly, doesn't speak the tongue. "You have elders whose first language is Navajo, but they can't communicate with their grandchildren," he says. "I think that's sad. What happens to the culture, then your traditions?"
He knows firsthand the emotional impact that Navajo prayers, and especially the Navajo Mass, has on many Indians. Antram is sitting at the kitchen table of Tekakwitha Mission, eating chocolate cake and drinking tea as he talks about the reaction to his Blessingway chant. "When they hear that, some Navajos are so overcome they break down into tears. They really revere that prayer."
Antram sees something similar every Friday when he travels to Gallup to celebrate Mass at a shelter. About 40 men and women attend, almost all Navajo. Some can barely stand. Others, moved by alcohol, demons or both, grumble incoherently. I tell of seeing one such man--when he heard Antram, in Navajo, consecrate the bread to become the body of Christ--squeeze his eyes shut, raise his arms high above and pray, tears streaming down his face. It was like watching the lost come home.
"Yes, isn't that something, seeing the reaction of the people there?" says the priest, looking up from his cake and smiling. "Every week at least one fellow comes up afterward and tells me how much that Mass in Navajo means to him. That makes me feel great. I can't imagine what I could've done with my life more fulfilling than that."
One soul at a time--that's how it works here.
Sunday, 10 a.m. sharp, into St. John's Church walks Mary Watchman and her granddaughter. Her son picked them up in his truck and got them through the mud to Mass.