A committed life

Chinle pastor celebrates 50 years in the priesthood

By Cindy Yurth
Dibé Nitsaa Bureau

DURANGO, Colo., June 21, 2012

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(Courtesy photo)

Fr. Blane Grein and the parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima mission in Chinle on June 10 celebrated his 50 years in the ministry.


fter killing 55 chickens every Friday night for his entire childhood, the young Blane Grein was pretty sure he didn't want to go into the family business - a chicken farm and grocery store in Cincinnati, Ohio, that kept his parents on their feet for 12-hour work days.

In this staunch Catholic family, there was one other obvious option: the priesthood, the Franciscan priesthood to be specific.

"In my dad's family, there was an uncle and five first cousins who were Franciscan priests, and four Franciscan sisters," Grein recalled in a telephone interview from Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Chinle. "When you grow up around the ministry, you get interested in it."

Particularly fascinating to the farm boy from rural Ohio with two relatives who were missionary priests. One uncle was expelled from China during the Communist takeover. A cousin made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in the Philippines.

Immediately after his own ordination on June 14, 1962, Fr. Blane Grein wrote a letter requesting a mission assignment. And, while he hasn't always served overseas, he has ministered to other cultures ever since.

"I got my wish," said Grein, 76. "I wouldn't say it's been an easy life, but it's been a rewarding life."

On Sunday, June 10, the parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima mission in Chinle honored their pastor of 34 years with a "jubilee" -- a celebration of 50 years in the ministry.

And Grein had the occasion to reflect upon a long and fruitful vocation.

A call to mission

Grein's first assignment was in Zuni, which was plenty exotic for a farm boy from Cincinnati, but when a post opened up the Philippines, he lunged at it, anxious to follow his cousin's sandal prints.

But by October of 1967, Grein found a mission that didn't exactly need to be evangelized.

"The island I was on was 100 percent Catholic," Grein recalled. "The neighboring island, which we were also responsible for, was 92 percent Catholic."

"This is not to disparage Chinle in any way," Grein said, "but in many ways, the 10 years I spent in the Philippines were the happiest years of my priestly life."

The reason, Grein said, was that he got to do a lot of what a priest is trained to do. There were probably 500 baptisms a year, 120 weddings and "a lot" of funerals.

(Compare that to Chinle, where he presides over 20 to 25 baptisms a year, four weddings and 82 funerals.)

The community-minded Filipinos also seemed to thrive on church work. Sixty-five men, along with a whole passel of women and teenagers, volunteered to be lay ministers and visit the parish's myriad remote villages, freeing up Grein to focus on the sacraments.

It was priest heaven until Ferdinand Marcos came to power and declared martial law, which included a list of "undesirable aliens" that the young American soon found himself on.

Grein takes seriously the gospel mandate of solidarity with the poor, and had been working with the Federation of Free Farmers, a group of poor sharecroppers under the dominion of one family who owned practically the entire island.

The wealthy family uneasily tolerated their foreign priest until one day when the landowner's son came up to Grein and said, "Father, I'm fearful for my life. And what you said in the pulpit didn't help."

It wasn't Grein's words that had upset the wealthy man, it was the words of Jesus. The gospel that day was the parable in which the landowner sends his son into the field to collect his due from the sharecroppers, and they respond by killing him.

Jesus was actually using the landowner's son as a metaphor for himself, but all the wealthy Filipino heard was the part about getting killed by the sharecroppers.

Nothing ever came of being on the "undesirable" list, but it made Grein nervous enough that when his father died shortly thereafter, he didn't go home to the funeral.

"I was afraid they wouldn't let me back into the country," he said.

Grein's next assignment was outside of New Orleans, on a peninsula "300 yards from one levee in the front and 600 yards from another one in the back."

He was in charge of one integrated parish and two African-American ones. They were Americans, but "it was definitely a different culture than I was used to," he said.

Coming to Navajo

In 1978, there was an opening for a priest in Chinle and Grein applied. It would be a lie to say he has never looked back but, in many ways, it's a good fit.

Grein doesn't get to do as many priestly activities as he did in the Philippines, but the small but avid parish of Fatima needs him more.

For one thing, he knows how to fix stuff.

"From the day I was born, my dad always had jigsaws, wood lathes and drill presses in the basement," Grein recalled. "I learned how to use all that stuff."

When he was confronted with a flaking stone church from the previous century and three far-flung missions - Lukachukai, Many Farms and Piñon - each with its compound of ramshackle structures, Grein went to work.

"It's kind of relaxation for me," he said. "When you have a frustrating day, there's nothing like going out and hammering on something."

There is a sadder duty that Grein has taken on as well - that of mortician. When there's a miscarriage or stillbirth at Chinle Regional Health Care Facility, Grein is often the person they call to take care of the tiny body.

Because of the taboos surrounding death and corpses, "Navajos want nothing to do with it," Grein said. "They'll often just leave the body at the hospital, and the staff incinerates it with the medical waste."

If either the mother or a hospital staffer can't bear the thought of that, they call Grein.

"I come and pick up the body, and go out to the old cemetery," he said. "The dirt there is a bit softer than at the new cemetery."

Grein finds a place nobody else is buried, digs a hole, says some prayers, and lays the tiny corpse in the makeshift grave.

"I make sure it's facing the right way, and there's no footprints around, out of respect for the Navajo ways," he said. "Sometimes I'll visit the mother, thank her for wanting her baby buried in a respectful way, and pray with her for a while. It's a service that I think is very much appreciated in the community."

The hogan church

It was also Chinle that made him break a rule he had made for himself as a missionary: Don't do anything major your first year.

"You don't go into a place and start making changes," he said. "You watch and listen for at least a year, and take your cues from the people."

This time, the people were not speaking in tongues, or even Navajo. They made it very clear what they wanted of their parish.

"It wasn't two months after I arrived," Grein said. "I was repairing cracks in the old stone church when one of the Navajo men who was helping me said, 'We need a hogan church.'"

Grein thought it was a capital idea.

"We're always inflicting our ways and our symbols on people," he said. "Just because Europeans brought Catholicism to the Native Americans, there's no reason their church should look like something out of Europe."

There was only one problem: The diocese wanted the parish to raise 90 percent of the money before they even started building. Grein secretly thought it was hopeless, but his parishioners took on the task with gusto, holding basketball tournaments, cakewalks and bingo games. It took them 10 years, but they raised the funds.

"I and six Navajos are the architects of our church," he said. "We didn't even hire an architect until we had designed it, and picked out everything down to the chandeliers."

Navajos who visit the church will find much to recognize besides the hogan shape. And don't expect incense at Our Lady - it's cedar smoke fanned with an eagle feather.

Other projects

Also established during Grein's tenure: a food bank, thrift store, the designation of the old rock church as a National Historic Place, and Joobaa Hogan, a large building that houses a food bank and two small rooms for emergency shelter. The unfinished upstairs will house bathrooms, showers and a men's and women's dorm room for retreats, cursillos, and the groups of volunteers who annually descend on the parish from churches around the country to fix up the church buildings and the homes of elderly parishioners.

"Unfortunately, we ran out of money before we could do that," Grein said. "I hope we can get it done before I retire."

Which brings up another challenge. When Grein became a priest 50 years ago, he certainly thought he'd be celebrating his jubilee in a retirement home. But he's not going anywhere until he's sure Our Lady is in good hands.

"Houck, Zuni, Kayenta, Shiprock - none of those places have a resident priest," he said. "There are a lot of places on the reservation that are taken care of by someone who drives out from Gallup. It's not the way to manage a parish.

"I won't let that happen to Chinle," he said. "Until someone says, 'I want to be the priest out there, and I want to live there,' I won't leave Chinle."

Why the dearth of vocations these days, when back in Grein's day a single family could produce six or seven priests?

"I think it's a matter of commitment," Grein said, quickly enough that it's certain he's given this matter some thought. "Nobody wants to commit to anything any more.

"You can say nobody wants to commit to celibacy, but they don't want to commit to marriage either," he said. "A husband and wife have one little argument and the first thing that comes to their mind is divorce."

Grein does think the church needs to adapt if it hopes to survive. It should revisit the celibacy vow, he believes, and also at least start to talk about ordaining women.

"There are plenty of qualified women out there," he said, "with a lot more initials behind their names than I have.

"If it weren't for the religious women in the church, the church would be in one heck of a mess right now."