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  • Object Lesson: A Mission among the NavajoThe Vicar, an Architect, and Unforeseen Ghosts
  • Karla Cavarra Britton (bio)

In 1917 Rudolf Otto wrote in The Idea of the Holy of the ephemeral idea of the ghostly. He claimed that the ghostly as well as tangible forms of architecture are both equally powerful means of expressing the numinous. Yet Otto asserted that ghosts have no place in our modern scheme of reality, despite the fact that the idea of the ghost arouses an irrepressible interest for the human mind. What is perceptibly true, Otto stated, is that our fear of ghosts is related in a far stronger sense to our fear of the “daemonic” experience itself, rather than to the sacred.1 Otto’s interest in yet disavowal of the reality of ghosts is an ironic backdrop for the investigation this essay makes of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Fort Defiance, Arizona, built by the renowned Southwestern architect John Gaw Meem (1894–1983) on the Navajo reservation just north of Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital (Figure 1). The Good Shepherd Mission provides a telling case study of the ways conflicting expectations and cultural assumptions surrounding sacred spaces can create unanticipated points of conflict which, as will become evident, are in this instance most clearly personified by the specter of ghosts— whether of a cultural or spiritual origin. And as a Christian “mission,” Good Shepherd also participates in the long and nearly universal trajectory of conflict that arises when spiritual and cultural traditions attempt to integrate or even to replace one another.

Fort Defiance, located in the heart of the traditional Navajo lands, was founded in what is now northeastern Arizona in 1851 as part of the U.S. military’s campaign to subdue the Navajo.2 It became notorious as the base from which Kit Carson organized the roundup of the Navajo people in 1864, leading to the forcible deportation of the Navajo by means of the genocidal three-hundred-mile “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. Those who survived the march were relocated in the infamous Bosque Redondo— essentially an internment camp. Along the walk and in the camp, thousands of Navajo died of disease, exhaustion, and malnutrition.

By 1868, the disastrous consequences of the relocation were inescapably evident, and the army signed a treaty that allowed the remaining Navajo to return to a greatly reduced portion of their native lands in the Four Corners area, marked by the four sacred mountains in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Following the return of the Diné (people) to what is now the Navajo Nation, the government’s policy shifted from subjugation to forced cultural assimilation. Among the institutions founded in this era was the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, a medical mission of the Episcopal Church begun in 1894, located just over a hill from the original military outpost of Fort Defiance.

The mission gradually assembled a 103-acre compound of buildings constructed of native sandstone—built by local craftsmen, yet with what a “surveyor” from the national church described in 1940 as “architectural distinction”— including a hospital, eye clinic, housing for nursing and other staff, and eventually a boarding school for children, many of them orphans (Figure 2).3 And as a mission of the church, the campus naturally included a small chapel, much [End Page 36] like an English village church, in memory of Miss Cornelia Jay, a member of the Westchester (New York) branch of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Church, which had a significant financial role in the mission’s founding and early support.

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Figure 1.

Good Shepherd Mission chapel, designed by John Gaw Meem, 1954, Fort Defiance, Arizona. Photograph by Karla Cavarra Britton, 2017.

Over the years, the size and scope of the mission expanded, and by the early 1950s the chapel was deemed insufficient for the needs of the community. According to a historical pamphlet from the period by J. Rockwood Jenkins, retired archdeacon of Arizona, the mission by then included some sixty resident children, from pre-school through age sixteen, and as many as a thousand baptized members (Figure...


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