Diocesan News

Lincoln priest serves New Mexico’s poorest people

By S.L. Hansen

(SNR) - Nearly a year ago, Father Thomas Walsh left his Nebraska parishes and accepted a three-year mission in Gallup, New Mexico.

“Bishop [James] Conley decided that we’re so blessed with vocations here, we should be generous,” Father Walsh said. “So he sent one priest to Alaska and one to New Mexico.”

Father Walsh welcomed the opportunity to move to Gallup and work with the Missionaries of Charity. Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta had established her order there in the 1980s to work with the poorest of the poor in keeping with their apostolate.

“We’re in the area that’s mostly Indian reservations,” Father Walsh said. “There are eight tribes here.”

Indeed, the Indian reservations in and around Gallup show some of the highest rates of poverty in the United States. Local government data places the poverty rate of New Mexico’s Navaho population at an astonishing 68.5%. The Apache, Hopi, Zuni and other tribes are similarly poor. Educational and employment prospects are dim.

More than 30 years ago, Gallup earned the unsavory nickname, “Drunk Town, U.S.A.,” because of the high rate of addiction among its homeless and impoverished population. Saint Mother Teresa arrived at that time to personally start the soup kitchen and overnight shelter, now run by seven of her sisters in their white saris with the bright blue stripes.

There, guests can enjoy a hot meal, a shower and a comfortable bed in a safe and welcoming environment. Meals are prepared with donated food, and the sisters strive to make the portions as generous and nutritionally balanced as they can. Up to 40 men can stay in this building over night, while women sleep in a shelter adjacent to the sisters’ convent.

The Missionaries of Charity run shelters for men and women as well as a soup kitchen in Gallup. On Sundays and Holy Days like Christmas and the feast of Saint Joseph, the sisters prepare an extra-special dinner to serve after Mass.

Once a week, they go to the Navaho reservation town of Chichiltah to teach catechism to the children. The sisters also spend a week on the reservation during the summer, conducting a sort of day camp for the kids.

“The sisters are a great inspiration,” Father Walsh said. “They really do follow the gift that Mother Teresa received.”

For Father Walsh, the mission is an opportunity to practice the works of mercy on a daily basis. He’s at the soup kitchen five afternoons and evenings, talking to the people who come in for a good meal, listening to them and praying for them. He also pitches in with practical help when he can, such as checking on the linens that the shelter uses for their overnight guests.

“I am there for the spiritual needs of the people,” he said. “A lot of people ask me to pray for them or to give them a blessing.”

On Friday afternoons, the sisters host Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for about an hour. Father Walsh handles that for them, as well as instructing any of the guests who decide to visit the chapel for the devotion.

Father Walsh estimated that “about half” of the Navaho people who rely on the Missionaries of Charity were baptized Catholic.

“Catholics are in the minority in the Navaho Nation,” he explained.

He has found that the shelter and soup kitchen guests are eager to talk to a priest.

“I haven’t heard many confessions, maybe half dozen,” he said, “But I’ve had many conversations that are almost like confessions. People want to tell me what they’ve done to others, or sometimes the hurts they have experienced from other people.”

He paused, considering the many bad stories he’s been told. “There’s been a lot of real tragedies,” he said finally.

His other duties include celebrating Mass and occasionally hearing confessions for the sisters when the priest who regularly tends to their needs is unable to come.

The sisters also manage a retreat house that serves as a regional center for the Missionaries of Charity who are stationed in Canada, Mexico and the United States. When a retreat leader is a layperson, Father Walsh will celebrate Mass for the retreat participants and hear confessions as needed.

He has been grateful to welcome groups from the Diocese of Lincoln who have journeyed to New Mexico to volunteer at the mission.

“The sisters are very open to people coming her to volunteer,” he said. “They know it’s good for people to help them.”

Father Walsh noted that the sisters included quarters for volunteers when their shelter was built. Those who are interested planning a short-term mission trip to help with the Gallup work can contact the Missionaries of Charity directly at 1-650-355-3091.

Father Walsh entreated the people of Southern Nebraska, “Pray for me and pray for the poor people here, and pray for the sisters.”

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