Southwestern Oklahoma is Protestant country. Growing up as a child in the little town of Anadarko, I remember a cacophony of Protestant sects and denominations: the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ; the Church of God and the Assembly of God; Nazarenes, Pentecostals and Presbyterians; three Baptist churches; a reformed Mormon church; and three Methodist churches—one for whites, one for African Americans, and one rural chapel for American Indians. And all this in a town of about 6,000 people!
At least one of these groups claimed to be Christ’s one true church; its members believed all people outside their fellowship were doomed to eternal damnation. Several believed baptism by total immersion was absolutely necessary for salvation; most believed dancing was a sin; and almost everyone in these various sects and denominations claimed not to drink alcohol. In one thriving little group, women were forbidden to cut their hair.
Were there Catholics in this Noah’s ark of Christian denominations? Yes—a few. But we Protestants knew almost nothing about them. As a schoolchild, I knew Catholics didn’t eat fish on Fridays, which was why I ate fish sticks once a week in the school cafeteria. Beyond that, I was ignorant of Catholicism. Catholics were as obscure and mysterious to me as the Buddhists of India.
St. Patrick Catholic School still operated at the edge of town when I was a child, staffed by Catholic Sisters. On rare occasions, I would see them driving about Anadarko going about their errands, wearing their severe black habits. I seem to recall they drove a Chevrolet Nova, but they were not part of my world.
I grew up and left that little Oklahoma town. Many years later, as an adult, I became a Catholic; and I learned that my home town has a rich Catholic heritage. In 1891, the Benedictine Fathers of Oklahoma founded St. Patrick Mission near the present town of Anadarko as a boarding school for Comanche and Kiowa Indian children. This was ten years before the town of Anadarko was established. In 1894, the U.S. Army settled Chiricahua Apaches nearby, and Apache children enrolled at the school. Geronimo’s grandchild was a pupil. According to local tradition, Geronimo himself was baptized as a Catholic.
I also learned that Saint Katharine Drexel donated almost all the money needed to build St. Patrick Mission and that the Sisters who staffed it were the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia. Saint Katharine visited St Patrick Mission in 1902, when Comanche and Kiowa Indians still lived in camps along the creeks and tributaries of the Washita River.
Still, even knowing about St. Katharine Drexel’s visit to Anadarko and the history of St Patrick Mission, I continued to think of the town of my childhood as Protestant—hostile and alien to my Catholic faith.
I was surprised then when I visited my home town a few years ago to see a large representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging on a wall in Anadarko’s only Mexican restaurant. A few years earlier that image would have meant nothing to me. And I’m sure it still means nothing to the restaurant’s Protestant customers. For them, she is a decoration in a Mexican restaurant--like velvet paintings of bull fighters and senoritas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City in 1531 and promised him her protection. Now she has revealed herself in Anadarko, a dusty little town in southwestern Oklahoma. She is still there, serene and demure, undisturbed by the strife and squabbles of Protestantism. Our Lady of Guadalupe is moving north.
Listen and hear well in your heart, my most abandoned son: that which scares you and troubles you is nothing; do not let your countenance and heart be troubled; do not fear that sickness or any other sickness or anxiety. Am I not here, your mother? Are you not under my shadow and my protection? Am I not your source of life? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle where I cross my arms? Who else do you need?And you know what? Our Lady of Guadalupe is right: She is our mother--the motherof all Catholics in the Western Hemisphere. Who else do we need?