When my Chavez ancestors settled in St. John’s, AZ, they took more than their sheep, horses and possessions. They also took their Catholic faith with them.
My great-great Uncle Onofre Chavez boasted in an oral history that Catholic holy mass was celebrated in the adobe Chaves home while they were living in Las Tusas, just outside of St. John’s. Apparently, many of the Hispanic settlers of St. John’s were honored to host Catholic mass in their homes until a church would be built.
In those early years of St. John’s, Las Tusas and surrounding villages, mass was celebrated by Father Pedro Maria Badilla, who was celebrated as the first parish priest when he arrived in St. John’s in 1880.
During my visit to St. John’s, I came across an interesting biography of Father Badilla. The biography, written by Lazaro Acosta in 1910, was featured in La Opinion Publica, which was published in Albuquerque. In addition to the details of Father Badilla’s life, the biography included many details of what life was like in St. John’s when my Chavez family lived there – roughly the late 1870s through about 1901.
Father Badilla was born in 1827 in Costa Rica. He eventually made his way to California and then Tucson, AZ, where in 1880 the first settlers of Apache County petitioned Bishop J.B. Salpointe to form a parish in East-Central Arizona. Bishop Salpointe asked Father Badilla to serve as its parish priest.
“He proposed this parish to Fr. Badilla, letting him know how difficult it would be, and the dangers of not having a church available, etc., etc.,” according to the biography. “The worthy Priest welcomed this proposition considering it to be his greatest happiness. It was that he wanted an uncultivated field to nurture, where he could sow the seed of the Gospel, to fertilize it and to reap its fruits.”
Father Badilla traveled north from Tucson to Prescott, the territorial capitol. He headed east to Holbrook with a family “ walking with a car pulled by oxen; they offered to carry him and take his baggage and provisions, but he took to foot as not to bother the family.” Once in Holbrook, he wrote to the people of St. John’s.
After a few days, Father Badilla was greeted by Serafin Apodaca who took the priest the rest of the way to St. John’s. Once there, he stayed at the home of Dolores Gallegos, described in the biography as a “humble man who lived alone and who spontaneously offered his home, as did so many other people also offering accommodations…”
Original Currier & Ives Picture Circa 1860
Used at First St. John’s Mass
Donated to the Catholic Church by Eminda Perez Lopez
After receiving visits from many of the people (of highest character) of St. John’s, Father Badilla celebrated his first Mass at the home of Mrs. Anastacia Gonzales. They improvised a chapel and Father Badilla was presented to the people as the founding Parish Priest of St. John’s.
“He took charge of the parish in very difficult circumstances; with wisdom and prudence of his character, overcoming all the obstacles that could hinder his order, letting nothing stop him in fertilizing the religious faith there.”
Soon after, Father Badilla “toured the area, giving mass and preaching in private houses of the villages and ranches he reached.” Surely, one or more of those homes were the adobe residences of my Chavez ancestors, including my third-great Grandparents Diego Antonio and Juana Chavez and their son, my twice-great Grandfather Preciliano Chavez.
“All residents receiving his sample with utmost joy, is nothing compared to what he gave his full order,” according to the biography.
Father Badilla lived for a year with Dolores Gallegos. During that time, he established a school in a house that belonged to Tomas Perez. He regularly celebrated mass in another house belonging to Guadalupe Salazar.
Eventually, Father Badilla collected enough money to raise a church to the dedication of San Juan Bautista. That first church was built at the same location where the church now stands, and the focal point of the Feast of San Juan that I witnessed this past June.
While I hoped to find a mention of my Chavez ancestors in the biography of Father Badilla, it was still a treasure to read the 1910 writings of someone who was familiar with those early decades of St. John’s.