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Lonely ministry in an Indian parish

A priest in a remote California region tries to salve historical wounds and boost the flock. It's hard going.

October 03, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Father Earl Henley performs a blessing during Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, which sits just across the road from temptation. The neighboring Soboba Casino rises from the San Jacinto foothills east of Hemet, pulsating with the whir of 2,000 slot machines.
Father Earl Henley performs a blessing during Mass at St. Joseph's… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Thermal, Calif. — Father Earl Henley and Sister Deanna Rose von Bargen drove deep into the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, past a boarded-up schoolhouse, spindly palms and fallow lettuce fields.

Finally, they reached the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Henley kicked aside four cantaloupe-size rocks lodged against the front door, ballast against the dry desert winds that often outwit the simple latch.

The tiny church has no electricity. Decorative stickers on the windowpanes stand in for stained glass.

With a few yanks on a thick rope, Henley rang the church bell to summon the faithful to the 9 a.m. Mass.

Moments later, tribal elder Ernie Morreo arrived wearing a camouflage bandanna, jeans and tennis shoes. He held an abalone shell filled with smoldering mountain sage. With two eagle feathers, he fanned the smoke over Henley and von Bargen to chase away evil spirits.

Then Morreo sat and waited for the service to begin. Only one other tribal member joined them that Sunday.

"Peace is flowing like a river," they sang, Henley's mild Kentucky twang rising above the echoes.

"Flowing out into the desert, setting all the captives free."

The priest's face appeared heavy with frustration.

"The message from Jesus tells us that we're not supposed to look for results, we're supposed to keep giving and believe that the Lord will do his work," Henley said toward the end of the service, as much to himself, it seemed, as to the two parishioners. "Maybe he's teaching us patience. Maybe he's teaching us endurance."

As head of the Native American Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernardino, Henley tends a parish of scattered tribes that include the newly wealthy, awash in casino profits, as well as the destitute hidden in the deep folds of the San Jacinto Mountains.

They are a people bound by loss, having suffered the near-obliteration of their native languages, homelands and ancestral ways.

In the 1700s, Spanish Franciscan missionaries preached the word of God while conscripting tribal members into forced labor. The Roman Catholic Church's harsh treatment of Native Americans and intolerance of their spiritual rites persisted well into the 20th century. Elders still tell of having been ripped away from their parents and shipped to parochial schools.

For the last decade, Henley has tried to salve those wounds and increase the flock.

It is hard going.

On Sundays, the pews at reservation churches are rarely full. Wedding bells almost never ring. Confessions are seldom uttered.

"I don't have 1,500 people to say Mass for," Henley said, flashing a smile that quickly disappeared into the crevices of his face.

The priest's territory is vast. On Sundays, he can be found behind the wheel of his Toyota 4x4 pickup, driving dusty roads near Coachella Valley date orchards or navigating the steep mountain passes into Anza's high desert.

He talks of taking a sabbatical to reassess his mission. He wants to live on the reservations, insert himself into the daily routines, as he once did as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

"This job is tougher,'' he said. "Just being a priest doesn't make it."


The Native American Ministry includes 15 tribes, most tended by other priests and sisters. Henley regularly visits five. Though overseen by the diocese, he is a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, a congregation that sends evangelizing priests worldwide.

Born in Louisville, Henley, 69, describes himself as a "city slicker at heart.'' He said he felt the "calling" to become a missionary when he was a 16-year-old sophomore at a boys high school run by the Xaverian Brothers.

His faith was tested early. While he was at seminary, his younger brother drowned in the Ohio River.

A few years after he was ordained in 1969, Henley was off to the South Pacific. Papua New Guinea, one of the most isolated and culturally diverse lands on earth, was his home for the next 23 years.

His faith was tested again after he returned to the U.S., when a woman who was a longtime friend proposed to him. He declined.

"This is where I find fulfillment. This is where I find happiness. This is where I want to be,'' Henley said. "But it doesn't come easy."

His sanctuary is St. Joseph's Catholic Church on the Soboba Reservation. He lives next door in a cluttered one-bedroom cottage with few comforts. A swamp cooler hums in the corner. Dream catchers, the webbed Native American charms believed to protect children from nightmares, dangle from the ceiling.

The tiny dining table is hidden beneath paperwork and a Ziploc bag filled with prescription bottles, including a blood thinner for the clogged arteries in his neck.

"The doctor said I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

The church lies just across the road from temptation. The neighboring Soboba Casino rises from the San Jacinto foothills east of Hemet, pulsating with the whir and techno-clatter of 2,000 slot machines.

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