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The Holy Wind Talker

Father Cormac Antram Arrived on the Navajo Reservation in 1954, Learned the Daunting Language and Started a Radio Show That Still Provides a Generational Link for a Changing Culture

March 23, 2003|Leo W. Banks | Leo W. Banks is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz.

The thick mud of a Navajo Reservation back road has gotten the better of Father Cormac Antram's Chevy Blazer. We're stuck 10 miles from the nearest pavement, surrounded by sagebrush and spirits. But we have plenty of company.

About 50 Navajos have gathered at a private cemetery in Coyote Canyon, about 25 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M., to bury one of their own. Blanche Charlie was 84, a respected member of the tribe and longtime friend of Antram. The somber mood gives way when the crowd notices the Blazer's tires spinning, mud flying everywhere. Then the Navajo sense of humor kicks in.

"Come on, Father Cormac! Gun it!" calls one.

"Say a prayer, Father Cormac!" shouts another.

Four-wheel drive accomplishes the miracle this day, quickly delivering us to dry ground. But the mini-buzz created by the sound of Antram's name continues when he steps from the car. Almost everyone knows the 76-year-old priest, who stands out in the Franciscans' traditional full-length brown robe and white cord belt. The Navajos call these men ednishodi--those whose clothes drag along. But I notice something unusual: Not only do his name and dress draw notice, but so does his voice. It makes heads turn.

Antram--tall, balding, his face grandfatherly behind thick glasses--is standing among the circle of mourners at the grave site. One Navajo after another approaches to offer greetings. Antram doesn't so much work the crowd as it works him. When the prayer service ends, we climb back into the Blazer, heading west toward Highway 666 and blessed pavement.

"Was that reaction typical?" I ask.

"Well, yes, I'm afraid I am a bit of a celebrity," says the priest, breaking into a big smile at the thought. "I'll knock on the door of a hogan in the middle of nowhere, people I don't know, and when I start talking, their eyes light up. They'll say, 'Wait, I know you!' "

We take in the beauty around us. Snow lies in puzzle pieces on the ground. The Chuska Mountains, glowing pink under the high sun, dominate the horizon. Some Navajos hike to a natural rock altar at the summit, bringing with them a piece of turquoise, which they smash with another rock as an offering to the diyinii, their Holy People. The ritual links them to a history they not only embrace, but fiercely guard.

How is it then that these people who cling to their spiritual past make a celebrity of a Franciscan roaring around in a Chevy Blazer, an Irish Catholic priest whom many have never laid eyes on?

The Navajos know Antram from the radio, where he spreads the Catholic faith through "The Padre's Hour," his long-running gospel, news and talk show. With its fascinating mix of Catholic and Navajo traditions, the show has been an integral part of Sunday mornings on the reservation for 45 years. With the exception of 18 months in the mid-1960s, when another priest did the show, Antram has been the only host. Only a few programs--including Paul Harvey's and the Grand Ole Opry--have a longer tenure in American radio.

"The Padre's Hour" first aired May 8, 1958, on a small Gallup station, the result of an inspiration that hit Antram "like a bolt out of the blue" one day while listening to a Protestant-run broadcast. The notion to start a Catholic program might have been fueled by competition, but it got the idea up and running. It was an efficient way to reach out to the entire reservation, which covers 26,000 square miles across portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. When Antram arrived here almost 50 years ago, much of the reservation was not easily accessible. That remains the case today.

At every assignment, this doggedly persistent priest has found an empty room, hauled in his cranky reel-to-reel recorder, nailed acoustic tiles to the ceiling and taped his message. He has worked from an attic in Chinle, Ariz., a basement outside Window Rock, Ariz., even from the bishop's office in Gallup. Now the show is recorded in a former sewing parlor for nuns in Antram's current posting at St. John the Evangelist Church's Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Mission in Houck, a crossroads settlement in northeastern Arizona. Today "The Padre's Hour" has a powerful home on KTNN, the 50,000-watt tribal-owned station that reaches across the Navajo nation and well beyond. The show's continuing presence has become more important as the number of Franciscans on the reservation has declined over the years.

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