ALPINE – A small Catholic church has been a fixture on the Viejas Indian Reservation for 80 years.
Bishop Robert W. McElroy joined the community on Dec. 7, presiding over a Mass to mark this milestone anniversary. A dinner reception followed.
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located at Viejas, is one of three missions that serve the local Native American population and together comprise St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. The others are the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located on the Barona Indian Reservation, and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located on the Sycuan Indian Reservation.
“The church of Viejas has always been a symbol of faith, peace, hope and joy among a group of Native Americans who have experienced so many struggles and challenges in their lives,” said Divine Word Father Herman Manuel, pastor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, reflecting on the 80th anniversary and its significance.
“It is a place where they come together to express their gratitude to ‘Amaiaha’ (God),” he said. “It is a place where they come together often to pray for their dead loved ones — not only on funerals and All Souls Day but also on their anniversaries and the restoration of their graves when damaged by strong rains. It is a place where they worship and congregate.”
The 16,000-acre Viejas Reservation, located east of Alpine, is home to about 300 members of the Kumeyaay Indian Nation. The reservation was established in 1934.
Previously, both the Viejas and Barona Bands of Kumeyaay Indians had lived on the Capitan Grande Reservation, located about 35 miles east of San Diego. Its residents were forced to sell much of that land to the City of San Diego for the creation of the El Capitan Reservoir in 1931. Proceeds from the sale were used to purchase the land on which the present-day Viejas and Barona reservations are located.
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated on Sept. 8, 1939, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Over the subsequent decades, the church has undergone several renovations, including the addition of a bell tower.
During the 2000s, renovations of the church interior resulted in a new sanctuary featuring a stained-glass depiction of St. Kateri Tekakwitha as well as a new altar, pews, baptistery, Stations of the Cross and more.
Served in its earliest days by the Franciscan friars, the Viejas Catholic community over the years has since been pastored by Comboni Fathers, La Salette Missionaries, diocesan priests and Divine Word Missionaries.
In his homily at the 80th anniversary Mass, Bishop McElroy reflected on the Gospel reading, which recounted John the Baptist’s preaching in the desert.
He said that John spoke in union with nature, represented by the wilderness where he made his abode and where God’s voice could be heard more easily than amidst the hustle, bustle and corruption of cities, and also spoke in union with revered ancestors.
Bishop McElroy noted parallels between John the Baptist and Native Americans, who also know about “being in the land and understanding the oneness of nature and the fact that God speaks to us in an especially profound way when we can get away from all of the hubbub of the cities.” Native Americans also have reverence for their forebears.
He said the Viejas church community is also like John in that, it draws attention not to itself, but in order to direct people toward Jesus.
Bishop McElroy offered a “prayer of thanksgiving” for what current and past generations of parishioners have accomplished, and he also prayed “that, in the next 80 years, this community may continue to do what John the Baptist did, to point toward the presence of Christ.”
Father Manuel told The Southern Cross that the anniversary celebration originally had been scheduled to take place on the evening of Sept. 7, the vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there had been a death on the reservation that week. Because of the community’s profound respect for its dead, he said, the event was postponed for a later time, so that the community could pay proper respect to its deceased member.