Fr. Earl Henley, M.S.C., meets every day on the steps of St Joseph Church with the team contracted to rebuild the Church’s roof to discuss specifics on the timeline and difficulties they anticipate in restoring the older building. The Church, founded in 1888 and originally called Our Lady of Guadalupe, was rebuilt in 1910 of sand and cement bricks and has been established as a church outside of the diocese – meant to minister to the needs of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians.
The Soboba Tribal Council want the Church to flourish, given its importance in the local community and the small Catholic school next to it. The Council is funding a restoration project to replace the roof, which has been leaking in several places for around ten years. Fr. Earl is rebuilding the roof with the support of the Soboba Native Council, but they cannot fund the entire forty thousand dollar project.
Fr. Earl and the Soboba Council are relying on the greater, universal Christian community to help fund this project.
tHE Church is a center of community, education, history, and life
St. Joseph’s is more than just a mission Church to the local community. Families attend Mass on Sundays and stay after to eat together or talk or pray together, and catch up with their pastor. Even more locals attend the funerals of family and friends, and return a year later to remember the deceased and burn the coverings and Crosses that hid their gravestones in a traditional ceremony.
Before each Mass is said, the Church is purified by the ritual burning of sage in an abalone shell. A stained glass window over the altar honors the history of the tribe depicting sacred symbols like the four directions, a gourd rattle, tobacco and sage smoke burning, and the Golden Eagle bringing prayers to Grandfather God. A serene glass window of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is opposite the altar.
At St. Joseph’s the traditions of the Catholic faith do not erase or replace the local traditions. This is especially important because of the history of the Catholic Church among Native American tribes is painful – many evangelists banned Native language, rituals, and traditions using violence and fear. “Living as missionary to a different culture means being sensitive to the way you speak because you can hurt someone without saying anything or being aware you’ve hurt them,” Fr. Earl says.
History and details matter to Fr. Earl, who knows the stories of the land and the people living on it. He talks about the history of a series of sports fields and grapefruit trees and the families of the homes he drives by. Almost everyone greets him with a smile and a familiar, “how are you doing, Father?”
Fr. Earl provides a Catholic presence to those who feel abandoned
At 75, Fr. Earl has spent more than half his life in ministry, working as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart (MSC) in Papua New Guinea from 1971 to 1994. He learned how to be a missionary priest there, how to listen to people from culture and experiences far different from his upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked as a pastor of different parishes spread across the islands, first in Anir, then Lorengau, and Lamingai.
Fr. Earl was appointed by the Diocese of San Bernardino to Saint Joseph’s Mission Church in 2001 to act as a pastor and to focus on evangelizing around the reservations. But he realized before he could evangelize, he needed to be there for the Catholic who he felt had been abandoned. There had been visiting priests but no pastor or regular Catholic presence in years.
He is responsible for six different Church communities at the reservations around the San Jacinto mountains. He drives to celebrate Mass at a different Church each week – St. Joseph for the Soboba Luiseno Indians in San Jacinto, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary for the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians in Thermal, St. Michael Church for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula, Our Lady of the Snows for the Cahuilla Band of Indians in Anza, Saint Rose for the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians in Mountain Center, and St. Mary’s for the the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.
Fr. Earl works with two assistants – Deacon Andy Orosco and his wife – to support the faith communities. With their help he has successfully started both RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and RCIC (Rite of Christian Initiation for Children) programs last year and hope to bring two candidates into the Church at Easter for the first time, along with 8 or 9 confirmations.
The work of Fr. Earl has changed lives and restored community
Fr. Earl works under the San Bernardino Diocese, and as an MSC, relies on his Provincial to continue his mission here. His funds are low with little financial support available from either the diocese or the MSC. Most of the Churches have only a handful of families attending with the largest Church of around 100 parishioners. He also helps the staff of St. Jude Catholic School, an independent K-5 that offers an accredited program along with Native history and traditions and Catholic values to the Soboba community.
It’s not a particularly easy life for a pastor to minister to tribes scattered around the San Jacinto mountains. And it’s difficult work – he regularly drives narrow and winding mountain passes to administer the Sacraments, attend wakes, and offer Funeral and anniversary Masses. The Churches are around forty miles away with the farthest an 80 mile trip from his cottage next to St. Joseph’s. But he is determined to stay and support the tribes and their faith.
Despite tight budgets and health issues, a quadruple bypass in 2009 and a herniated disc, Fr. Earl doesn’t want to retire until he can find and train a replacement with the heart of a missionary to minister to the tribes here. Just like any other community, the reservations have their fair share of problems – domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and the residual mistrust of a Church that tried to take away their culture and traditions. And he believes that understanding and a pastoral presence is one of the only ways to change lives – his work matters more than ever.
To continue his mission – Fr. Earl needs your help
Fr. Earl is hoping to find help funding the reconstruction of St. Joseph’s roof with a goal of raising $5,000 to $7,000. Most of his parishioners come weekly, but many only come to the Church to celebrate the lives of their loved ones at Funerals and traditional anniversaries. He has built the Church up, adding benches and cleared areas outside for potlucks and barbecues, along with rooms for faith formation groups and Bible studies. Locals like Michael Madrigal and Caroline Ybarra help him with administration and faith formation but space is tight while the Church is under construction.
You can support Fr. Earl’s mission of evangelization and his goal by donating to the roof reconstruction project. It might seem like a small thing but a Church is a place where so many of us grow in our faiths, find support and help, socialize and develop strong connections in our communities. You can help a community continue to grow in faith and support.
Fr. Earl doesn’t have a network of people to appeal to – he needs your help, today.
Support the work of Fr. Earl Henley and the people of the Soboba Indian Reservation. Any gift, no matter how small, truly makes a difference.