Navajoland envisions new uses for old hospital as Presiding Bishop blesses reconsecrated chapel

By David Paulsen
Posted May 3, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] The Navajoland Area Mission is committed to fixing up one of its historic buildings in Farmington, New Mexico, as a labor of love. It would be easier and cheaper simply to demolish the 1922 structure, but this is no ordinary building.

It originally served as an Episcopal hospital catering to the Navajo people. Generations of Navajo were born and treated at the hospital until it closed about 50 years ago. The hospital’s chapel remained in use until about a decade ago, when it too was closed, out of safety concerns.

Because of its deteriorating condition, saving the building is a herculean task, but through Episcopal Church grants, additional fundraising efforts and the dedication of Navajoland officials, a two-year restoration project had advanced enough to reopen the chapel last week in time for it to be reconsecrated and blessed during Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s recent visit to Navajoland.

“We put things on hyper-overdrive to get the chapel ready for the presiding bishop’s visit,” said the Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, canon to the ordinary for Navajoland Bishop Dave Bailey. Osborn de Anaya called Hozho Chapel “the heart of the body of Christ in that old hospital.”

“The rest of the building will be finished hopefully in the fall,” she said. The chapel will share the second floor with a new women’s wellness center, while the ground floor will become the home of Cheii’s Web Development, a startup enterprise created by Navajoland to teach young people coding skills and create jobs in web design.

“I’m very excited,” G.J. Gordy, manager and web developer with Cheii’s, told Episcopal News Service. “We’re going to start teaching web development and basic computer skills, and teaching has been a passion of mine, especially helping Navajo children.”

A lot of work still needs to be done, however, before the former hospital can become a fully functioning space again.

The building, about 6,000 square feet, had been mostly abandoned until Navajoland launched its restoration project in 2016 with Osborn de Anaya as project manager, drawing on her past experience as a real estate broker. Navajoland received $325,000 for the project from the Episcopal Church that year through a grant to support indigenous ministries.

But when contractors began their work, they discovered troubling problems with the building. Much of the plumbing needed to be replaced, as well as the electrical wiring. Sometime in the building’s history, a load-bearing wall had been removed, so new supports had to be installed. Those and other needed upgrades have added about $150,000 to the cost of the project.

“Every day, I go in and it’s a new challenge, and somehow my spirit is holding,” Osborn de Anaya said.

The Episcopal Church’s ministry on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation dates back more than a century to medical missions established in Fort Defiance, Arizona; Farmington, New Mexico; and Bluff, Utah. In 1978, the Episcopal Church carved out sections of the dioceses of Rio Grande, Arizona and Utah to create the Navajoland Area Mission, and since Bailey was assigned to Navajoland in 2010, he has emphasized the goals of financial sustainability and raising up Native church leaders.

Despite the extensive repairs needed, Navajoland leaders wouldn’t think of tearing down the old hospital building. Many people in the local white community may not be aware of its significance, Osborn de Anaya said, but the hospital still holds treasured memories for many of the Native residents.

To ensure the building will be preserved, Navajoland is seeking financial support from local businesses and institutions, in addition to casting a wider net with the help of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Development. One potential partner is New York’s Trinity Church Wall Street, which is sending a delegation later this month to visit the restoration project as it considers ways it can offer support. A GoFundMe campaign also has been launched.

“This is going to take the whole village, and it’s so worthy,” Osborn de Anaya said.

Navajoland also has long received support from the Episcopal Church’s United Thank Offering program, including a $29,000 grant in 2017 to pay for the utility upgrades and technology needed to move the Cheii’s web developers into the former hospital. Until then, the two full-time developers and additional part-time developers are working nearby in spare space shared with other Navajoland offices.

Bailey welcomed Curry on the presiding bishop’s five-day visit to Navajoland, from April 25 to 29. Curry’s delegation included the Rev. Michael Hunn, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry within the church; the Rev. Bradley Hauff, Episcopal Church missioner for indigenous ministries; and Cecilia Malm, an Episcopal Church development officer.

The old hospital was one of Curry’s first stops when on April 25 he joined a small gathering in the chapel for a rededication and blessing.

A Farmington resident who attended, Katherine Sells, told the Farmington Daily Times that she was born in the hospital in 1945 and remembers playing on its steps as a child while she was there for medical treatment. She was pleased to see it rededicated.

“It made me emotional because my dad would say that my mom would go in that chapel. I guess she prayed [there],” Sells said.

Bailey told the Daily Times the building’s poor condition had raised concerns that it would be torn down, but he supported Native residents’ desire to preserve it.

“They wanted to bring it back so that it was a place of healing again,” he said.

Curry alluded to the Navajo’s strong belief in tradition during his sermon April 29 at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance.

“The closer we draw to our traditions and live with those traditions and find our God in the midst of those, we’ll find life,” Curry said. “That is one of the great gifts you give to the church. … You have found a way to bring together the traditions of the Navajo and faith in Jesus.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (5)

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    The restored chapel, with communion rails and what appears to be an altar that is not free standing, seems more a monument to the past than a worship space designed for gathering around the table of the Lord and experiencing His presence in a shared meal.

    In Navajo tradition the sacred place is at the center of a structure. Our early missionaries placed the altar at the center and had the worshipers seated, as was their custom for important occasions. This chapel looks Victorian Gothic rather than native Navajo. When will we ever learn?

  2. John Kendall says:

    I was in Farmington in the early 60’s your youth group spent time there. So glad to see it coming back . Blessings to all

  3. Linda Garrish Thomas says:

    I think the restoration is wonderful but if Rev. Fenton is correct, why wasn’t the alter place in the chapels center within a sacred circle as would have been closer to the Navajo (Native American) culture and how the chapel was designed.

  4. Ron Peak says:

    +David — thrilled to see your very special ministry continues to those on whose land we now live. You, your very special ministry, and those whom you serve, continue to be in my daily prayers.

    Blessings,
    Ron Peak +

  5. Brewster Bird says:

    Blessings All, many a Monday and Thursday evening in the basement with our All Saints youth group in the 1970s

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