Sister describes Native American spiritual leader as 'gentle' man

When Sister Janice Munier, SSND, received a packet of materials to help promote the U.S. bishops' annual Black and Indian Mission collection this month, she was surprised to see a familiar face on the promotional poster.

Dressed in a deep blue shirt with red trim, and wearing necklaces bearing a cross and the symbol of his tribe, Joseph Enos' image was a warm reminder for Sister Janice of her work with him and other Native Americans. The School Sister of Notre Dame, now a pastoral associate at Most Holy Trinity Parish in north St. Louis, worked alongside Native Americans with the Tohono O'odham Nation on their reservation in Arizona from 1993-2005.

Parishes here and around the United States will participate in the Black and Indian Mission collection the weekend of March 9. Since 1884, proceeds from the National Black and Indian Mission Collection are distributed as grants to dioceses across the country to operate schools, parishes, and other missionary services that build the Body of Christ in Native American, Alaska Native and African-American Catholic communities.

Sister Janice went to Arizona when the Franciscans of the San Solano missions invited her community to send a sister who could help. "I went to do something I had never done before," said the longtime teacher. "I just felt called to this."

It was there that she met Joseph Enos, one of the spiritual leaders for the reservation. The Tohono O'odham Nation reservation in the United States is located between Phoenix and Tucson, and borders Mexico. The tribal enrollment is about 25,000 people.

The majority of the Tohono O'odham people practice Catholicism, which the Spaniards introduced centuries ago. They also incorporate into their faith the tribe's cultural traditions, said Sister Janice.

Enos, whom Sister Janice described as a "gentle" man, has a keen ability to weave the Christian faith and cultural practices together in a way that respects both elements.

"He knows the dances, the songs and the traditions of the people," said Sister Janice. "He integrates Christianity and the culture. By profession, he's a counselor, and uses that skill effectively among the people."

For example, baptism is a celebrated sacrament in the church. It is also celebrated within the cultural tradition. That tradition includes participating in a clay ceremony, generally after birth. "They believe that they are people who come from the earth," said Sister Janice. "So (the spiritual leader) will take the clay and ask God to bless the child, and places a little bit of the clay in the child's mouth. This identifies the child as a member of the Tohono O'odham, which in their language 'means people of the desert.'"

During her time there, Sister Janice worked with a team -- including priests, religious and laity -- to help with lay formation, catechesis and visiting with people. She said that while her community no longer has a presence at the reservation, lay members of the tribe who have been trained continue the work.

"Their lived experience of God always inspired me," said Sister Janice. "When their own people are spiritual leaders, they speak from their heart. That's when the Tohono O'odham people really respond."

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