Father Albert Braun didn’t have much outside his Purple Heart medal when the 30 year old returned from WWI in 1919—$100 in U.S. Army pay, three shovels and a stonemason friend in California—but he believed he had enough to build a majestic church on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico to replace a crumbling adobe structure.
His dream was so contagious, he received free floor plans for a Romanesque-style church from noted Philadelphia architect William Stanton. His stonemason friend, Antonio Leyva, helped out big time. By 1939, Franciscan brothers and Apache volunteers completed St. Joseph Apache Mission. In 1945, after surviving 40 months as a prisoner of war in WWII, Father Braun rededicated the church as a towering tribute to both Apache and American veterans killed in war.
But the years have not been kind. Wind, rain, bats, birds—all found their way into the church through the crumbling lime mortar, now more sand than glue. By 1994, folks could see these walls might not stand forever. In 2000, major restoration work began.
“We started raising money in 1998, with powwows and a million enchilada dinners,” says Mary Serna, the restoration project manager.
Over the last 16 years, the church has raised and spent almost $2.3 million for its restoration, from grants and individual contributions, and two private “saviors” who have given more than $400,000.
Last June, after 14 years of clearing and replacing the lime mortar, the restored mission was celebrated in a three-day Apache blessing feast.
“This is such a special place to so many,” Serna says. “People come in and feel a spiritual place of awe and wonder.”
Awe and wonder can also be ascribed to the restoration itself, which turned into a do-it-yourself effort. New Mexico State Monument maintenance workers even took advantage of the church’s lime mortar training, which they will utilize to properly preserve Lincoln’s adobe courthouse where Billy the Kid escaped during the Lincoln County Wars.
Serna’s first lime mortar trainee was Tommy Spottedbird, who had spent half of his nearly 50 years suffering from alcohol abuse. “He’s been sober over 14 years and is now codirecting the project with me,” says Serna, with pride.
She says the other 44 trainees, from 16 to 50 years of age, found the work hard and dirty. “We had nine or 10 trainees who decided this work was too hard and went to college! We had a couple start their own businesses. The program not only restored the church, but helped create a work ethic here.”
Through it all, nobody forgot that this dual-purpose building stood for so much. Father Braun, who dreamt this spiritual war memorial into being, died in 1983 and is buried at the mission.
His dream church, now good as new, remains a divine tribute to faith, patriotism and courage.
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a children’s book.