In the summer of 2019, Daughter of Charity Sister Mary Peter Diaz left Anchorage for a new assignment on the vast Navajo Reservation in the Southwestern United States.
Like all of us, Sister Mary Peter, who had worked here in both Hispanic and Native ministry, had no idea what was in store in 2020. So, I was happy to see her picture and story in the December 7 Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter, which described the work of Catholic sisters throughout the Navajo Nation.
I gave my friend a phone call to catch up. Despite the heavy toll COVID-19 has taken on the Navajo people, Sister Mary Peter’s friendly voice sounded enthusiastic and faith-filled.
So, do you love it there? I asked, knowing that after twelve happy years in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, the new assignment was a big move. Particularly after her good friend and fellow Vincentian Bishop Andrew Bellisario of Juneau, now archbishop of Anchorage-Juneau, had been appointed archdiocesan administrator last summer and would be in Anchorage more often.
“I love wherever I am,” she replied. “The Lord sends me and I love it. If you’re not really there and present, you can’t really serve.”
Sister Mary Peter is in charge of St. Jude’s Food Bank, an independent project on the campus of St. Jude’s Parish in Tuba City, an unincorporated town of about 8,600, which is nevertheless the largest “city” on the reservation.
“We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Sister Mary Peter laughs. “The nearest large city is 75 miles away.”
The reservation is an area of sometimes breath-taking beauty that covers 27,000 square miles in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. If the Navajo Reservation were a state, it would be larger than ten other U.S. states.
Yet, its population is only 175,000 Navajo, and as of May, it had the highest per capita coronavirus rate in the country.
The area faces some of the same challenges as Bush Alaska: CNN reports 30% of the population doesn’t have access to running water. There’s limited health care access, and many households have several generations under one roof.
Because of COVID, Sister Mary Peter’s ministry changed. Like most of the reservation, the food bank initially went into shutdown, with the remaining food being quickly dispersed to long lines of cars. Strict curfews were imposed, sometimes demanding people shelter in place for the entire weekend.
But eventually, the ministry was able to partner with First Things First, a public funding source that specializes in helping children from birth to age 5, and now works with St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix.
Those seeking food assistance now are identified by phone and pick up food by appointment in prepacked boxes delivered to their cars. Demand has grown enormously.
Times are desperate for the Navajo, Sister Mary Peter said. Tourism, an economic mainstay, has mostly vanished.
“So many are craftspeople,” she said. “Many sell native foods, work in hotels, sell at flea markets and shops. Some people who call for food say ‘we’ve never asked before.’”
Sister Mary Peter lives with two other Daughters of Charity whose work was in-home visitation, impossible now due to health restrictions. The sisters rely on phone visits and a ministry of prayer.
The parish is small – very few Catholics, Sister Mary Peter said. In fact, some of her best volunteers are elders from the nearby Mormon community.
Sister Mary Peter Diaz continues to serve the poor in the Vincentian charism of her order. It lifted my spirits to talk to her and to read about the work done by Catholic sisters across the unique Navajo Nation.