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  • A Priest in the Papaguería: Selections from the Bonaventure Collection of Early-to Mid-20th-Century Mission Photographs
  • Richard Trible (bio) and Bernard L. Fontana, Introduction

In 1896 Franciscan missionaries assigned to the Province of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in St. Louis, Missouri, took over the administration of a church and parish in the Diocese of Tucson that had been dedicated to the Most Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Phoenix, Arizona. A residence for the priests and brothers was constructed in 1897 and the church, subsequently enlarged and commonly known as “St. Mary’s,” remains active under Franciscan administration to the present day. It is now in the Diocese of Phoenix, which was established in 1969.

The roots of the Franciscans’ Sacred Heart of Jesus Province, formally created in 1879, lie in Germany, the country from which most of its missionaries arrived in the United States in 1858. Simultaneously with their arrival in Phoenix, they assumed the responsibility for missionary work among nearby Pima, Papago (Tohono O’odham), Maricopa, and Apache Indians. Almost at once, the friars, whose first language was often German, launched their Indian apostolate. They established St. John’s Mission church among the Pima Indians at Komatke on the Gila River Indian Reservation in 1896 and, eventually, also at Komatke, the St. John’s Indian School for Pima, Papago (Tohono O’odham), Maricopa, and Apache Indians.

On November 1, 1915, the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara was created, and friars stationed in central and southern Arizona became part of its jurisdiction, as is the case today (Anonymous n.d.: 46, 51–52, 257; Schwarz 1921). [End Page 277]

Initial efforts among Indians by the Franciscans were focused on the Gila River Indian Reservation, but in October 1908, and again in April 1909, Fr. Mathias Rechsteiner made reconnaissance and proselytizing journeys into the Santa Rosa and Baboquivari Valleys in areas which after 1916 would become part of the Papago Indian Reservation, called the Tohono O’odham Nation since 1986. Father Mathias died in July 1911, and his immediate successor in Papago country became Fr. Bonaventure Oblasser. In 1913, jurisdiction shifted from St. John’s at Komatke to Mission San Xavier del Bac on the San Xavier Papago Reservation. It was moved again in 1915, this time to San Solano Mission near the Papago (O’odham) village of Cababi, and, finally, to the Papago settlement of Topawa in 1922–1923 (Oblasser n.d.; Rohder 1982). San Solano Mission remains in Topawa in the Baboquivari Valley, and Franciscans from the St. Barbara Province continue their apostolate among the Tohono O’odham.

Throughout much of this history, and especially until about the mid 20th century, friars carried various kinds of cameras with them, usually simple and inexpensive box cameras. Prints, generally unlabeled, as well as black-and-white negatives, ended up in boxes where they reposed at random. Some of the prints also found their way onto the pages of photo albums, but these, too, were frequently unlabeled.

Before he died in 1967, Father Bonaventure gathered as many books, manuscripts, and photographs relating to the Papago Indian and Gila River Indian Reservations and their people as he could, creating a considerable library and archives in the process. After Fr. Bonaventure’s death, Fr. Kieran McCarty, who was pastor at Mission San Xavier del Bac from 1966 to 1971, brought all these materials to Mission San Xavier where he established what he called the “Bonaventure Library.” Subsequently, between 1988 and 1997, the contents of the library and archive were shipped to the Santa Barbara Mission Archive/Library in Santa Barbara, California, because the space at Mission San Xavier was sorely needed for other purposes and because in Santa Barbara the materials would benefit from professional care.

Before these photos and other archival materials were sent to Santa Barbara, James Griffith made extensive use of them in writing his Ph.D. dissertation, a study of the architecture of Catholic churches built on the reservation (Griffith 1973, 1974). Recognizing the value of the photographs, Griffith felt something should be done about their organization and preservation. Unable at the time to launch such a [End Page 278] project himself, he...


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