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BLUFF, San Juan County — A historic mission to the Navajo Nation is still alive and well, almost three-quarters of a century after it was founded by a legendary Episcopal priest.
But the mission is not all about religion, according to his successor. It's also about trying to plug some gaping holes in the social safety net.
On Sunday mornings, the Rev. Richard Stevens — known locally as "Father Red" — rings an old railroad bell, summoning the faithful to church. St. Christopher's Episcopal Mission is just outside of Bluff in a place on the edge of the Navajo Reservation that's drenched in history.
First there was an old log church "built in 1944 and '45," Father Red explained as he walked through the remains. The church burned down in 1964. "This got scorched," he said, pointing to a stone altar, "but it got preserved."
A step or two away, inside a transparent display case, is a statuette known as the "Navajo Madonna." It was carved decades ago by a visitor who portrayed the Madonna as a Navajo.
"She's got the traditional hair-tie in the back," Father Red said. "She's got the turquoise earring and comb, the Navajo blanket and the traditional velvet dress."
It all began in the 1940s with an Episcopal priest from Connecticut, the Rev. H. Baxter Liebler. His final resting place is at the historic mission in Bluff he established so long ago.
"The family felt that he would be most comfortable in the place that he loved the best," according to his successor.
The mission is designated as a Utah Historic Site and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since Father Liebler came, many Navajos have been born here in an old clinic that has fallen into disuse, its roof torn off in a recent windstorm. Many have died here, too, and were given a Christian burial in a place where that once seemed exotic and foreign.
"Yes, Navajo culture is very different," Father Red said. "But in a lot of ways, I see it making Christianity stronger."
According to the lore of the St. Christopher's Mission, Father Liebler chose his red-rock outpost after spending many summers on the road in an old Ford station wagon. Looking for just the right place, he roamed the West, Father Red said, "to check out the land and visit with people, visit different tribes, see where the need was greatest. And he found himself drawn to this place."
Now Father Red is carrying on the work of Father Liebler. One of his duties is baking bread before each Sunday service, which is held in a much more modern church than the one Father Liebler started with. The bread is for people who come — or who can't come — to church.
"I always make extra loaves," he said, "for people who happen to be sick, or people who are elderly, people who can't get a ride, or old people who have forgotten what day it is."
Yes, Navajo culture is very different. But in a lot of ways, I see it making Christianity stronger.
Seven decades after the first church was built, the needs of the people — what brought Father Liebler here in the first place — are as much as ever the mission of St. Christopher. In Father Red's opinion, society still treats many people unequally.
"There's a lot of gaps and a lot of holes in our safety net," he said. "It's just the way things — the system — has fallen short, basically, and the way people have forgotten how our system is supposed to deal equally."
The mission's water pump is one of the busiest water sources in the area, drawing Navajos from dozens of miles away.
"People come all the way from Red Mesa and Aneth, come down to get their water," said Tina Dee of Red Mesa as she filled jugs in the back of a pickup truck. She said many Navajos believe the water is purer and tastes better than what's available elsewhere on the Navajo Nation.
"This is the only place there's water like this," she said.
The mission has a van labeled "Mobile Food Pantry," which is regularly driven to a remote junction on the reservation so food can be given away to the needy.
Detailing the services offered over the years by the mission, Father Red said, "Father Liebler came out here and started a school. He started the first clinic that served the Navajo Nation. His clinic virtually eradicated tuberculosis in this one corner of Utah."
In time, the Episcopal mission spread across Navajoland. The Church of St. John the Baptizer was established in Montezuma Creek. In the Monument Valley area, the Church of St. Mary's of the Moonlight also caters to the spiritual needs of the Navajos.
"I grew up at the mission," said the Rev. Deacon Leon Sampson, a Navajo who dresses in clerical vestments on Sundays and helps lead church services. His mother was adopted as a young girl by Father Liebler.
"The charitable side that was here," Deacon Sampson said, "it was very much needed because it wasn't available from the state. It wasn't available from the county."
Father Red promises the mission will continue, with new programs to deal with tough social problems like domestic violence and alcoholism. The mission also provides agricultural land where Navajo families learn to grow crops and meet some of their nutritional needs.
"I'd like to see the county pick up some of the slack here," he said. "But yeah, we'll continue to broadcast the needs here and see who responds."
Father Liebler died in 1982. Father Red has been in charge of the mission for about seven years.