Reporter's Notebook

More than 300 attend Navajo-speaking priest's funeral

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 10, 2013

Text size: A A A




In 2003, as he was preparing to celebrate his 50th year as a Catholic priest on the Navajo Reservation, Father Cormac Antram broke into a big smile when he was interviewed by a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

The interviewer, Leo Banks, had gone with Father Cormac to a funeral at Coyote Canyon and watched as the Navajos who attended the funeral came up to him one by one and greeted him warmly as if he was a member of their family who they had not seen for a long time.

Father Cormac was asked if that reaction was typical.

"Well, yes, I'm afraid I am a bit of a celebrity," he said modestly.

He remained the most well known Franciscan on the reservation until his death last week at the age of 87 at the St. John Care Center in Albuquerque. More than 300 people attended his funeral Monday at the St. Michaels Mission, ending an era on the Navajo Reservation.

To understand the deep feelings that many Navajos had for Father Cormac, people need to understand the role the Franciscans played in the life of Navajos in the 1900s.

It began with father Anselm Weber in the early part of the century.

He was a priest promoting the Catholic faith but he also believed in helping the Navajo people and the tribe, helping the government acquire land and working to promote a better understanding of the Navajo people by developing the first and most well-known Navajo-English dictionary.

When Father Cormac came to the reservation in 1954, agreeing to teach at the St. Michaels Mission, Franciscan priests were expected to follow in his footsteps and provide services to the Navajo people that went beyond the duties of most Catholic priests in the United States.

Throughout the early part of the 1900s, it was common for Navajo families to bring their loved ones to a priest or an Indian trader to do the burying because of Navajo taboos in dealing with death.


It was also common in those days for Franciscan priests to learn Navajo because so many of their church members, especially the elderly, knew little or no English and were more comfortable speaking in their own language.

When father Carmac died, he was the last of the Franciscan priests on the reservation to speak fluent Navajo.

"Priests on the reservation today probably know a few words in Navajo," said Martin Link, a historian who worked for many years as director of the Navajo Nation Museum.

He pointed out that modern priests really don't need to know much Navajo because most of the members of their congregation speak English.

But for Father Cormac, it was a necessary because for most of his time on the reservation, he would make it a practice to go around and just visit homes on the reservation to say hello and ask how they were doing and if there was anything he could do to help them.

And many of these homes were in the most remote portions of the reservations, areas where Navajo was the prominent language.

What was amazing to some people was the fact that in many cases when Father Cormac introduced himself, the family would know who he was, either because they were loyal listeners to his Sunday radio program, "Padre's Hour," or because they had read one of his columns in "the Voice of the Southwest," the newspaper put out by the Gallup Diocese.

Father Cormac did the Padre's Hour in Navajo each week for more than four decades and it became one of the most popular shows on KGAK and then on KTNN when it transferred over to the tribal station.

And while he spent a portion of each program talking about the faith and God's message, a lot of the program was taken up with giving announcement of things like upcoming chapter meetings, powwows or rodeos.

And his ability to speak Navajo was legendary.

Often, said Link, Navajos would come up to him and ask him for the correct pronunciation of Navajo words that were no longer used very much. And Father Cormac would be able to help them out.

At the time Father Cormac came to serve the Navajo people, the priests who came before him instilled a love among the Navajo people of the kindly priest who was always willing to give a helping hand to anyone at any time.

This can be seen, said Link, by anyone who goes to the Navajo Nation Council and looks at the mural that goes around the wall.

The mural, done by Gerald Nailor, in the 1950s, gives a history of the Navajo and covered life before the white man came, events like the Long Walk and the Navajos return to their homeland.

But it is the last panel that probably shows best the feeling of the Navajo people to the Franciscans, he said.

It's hard to get to because of recent changes in the Council but there is a small room behind where the speaker of the Council sits and in that room is a panel that shows about 20 Navajos kneeling around someone and giving him homage.

"That person is not Chee Dodge or someone with the BIA. It is a Franciscan priest."

That probably, more than anything, explains the feeling that many older Navajos had for Cormac, in part because he served in parishes all over the reservation during his career, from Chinle, Kayenta to Tohatchi.

His last parish was in Houck and he would spend more than 20 years there, staying active until just a couple of years before his death.

Another thing that will be missed with Father Cormac's passing is the Navajo mass.

Father Cormac decided after being on the reservation for a few years that having the mass done in Navajo would help people understand it better so he worked for almost two decades on it, finally getting help from a committee set up by Bishop Jerome Hastrich to help in translating the words into the Navajo language.

By the start of this century, he was the last of the Francsican priests still able to do the mass in Navajo and because of that, Link, in 2011, made an effort to have a video recording of the mass done to preserve it for the future.

And the timing could not have been better because shortly after the video was made, Father Cormac began showing the signs of aging and wasn't able to perform the mass anymore.

Link said officials for the Diocese of Gallup have received many phone calls from people now wanting a copy of that video. (The tape is available at $12.50 but the price goes down in bulk sales).

His legacy also includes two books, "Laborers of the Harvest," which told stories of the reservation and people he knew or admired (adapted from his newspaper column) and "Halos and Heroes," another collection of stories, which can be found on amazon.com.

Back to top ^