When we founded Cana Academy, part of our deepest prompting was to serve the marginalized, the lonely, and the broken. We wanted our services to bring hope; we intended our encounters to be restorative.
The Cana team has an opportunity to work among some distant neighbors who could benefit from the kind of learning culture we develop. In late September I was invited to give a presentation to a board of reviewers on the Gila River Indian Community. My hosts were the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit, a recently formed order of priests and brothers who have responded to the call to minister to the Native Americans just south of Phoenix, Arizona. Their hope is to open a mission high school in two years, and they have turned to Cana Academy to help them get that done. I was on site to propose a vision for the curriculum, and the friars have accepted the proposal. Now, the Cana team is constructing the curriculum.
Towards that curricular objective, we knew it would be helpful to see other mission schools serving Native populations, which is why this past month we traveled to Ashland, Montana, and Red Cloud, South Dakota. There my companions—Fathers Alcuin Hurl and Antony Tinker—and I visited two of the three Catholic mission high schools left today on reservations in America.
Life could hardly be more difficult than what these residents in Montana and South Dakota experience every day. Unemployment is unrelentingly high. Family life is severely damaged, and drug and alcohol addiction are at epidemic levels. If not for these two Catholic mission schools, there would be scant hope of Native students finishing high school, even less hope that they would have a chance to attend college.
For several days the fathers and I toured the schools, swapped notes and brainstormed about what kind of school we should develop for the Gila River Indian Community, and we took in as much of the history and culture of the respective areas as we could. The places I visited included Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. We also passed through the southern end of the Badlands, sacred territory to the Natives.
The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona has great challenges as well. Among them is an exceptionally high dropout rate. At this time, there are only public high schools available to them. Of those students who start high school, only about thirty percent finish. The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit are determined to turn that figure around, to provide a dynamic culture that is marked by the love of learning and fueled by the love of Christ and one another. Cana Academy is honored to have a role in helping build that culture.
Among the great advantages the Gila River residents have is their proximity to Phoenix, which holds out a greater possibility for nearby employment. Best of all, however, is the profound love of the friars. In fact, when the Franciscans settled on the reservation two years ago, they discovered that some of the Natives had been praying for their arrival, not knowing about the new order. One of the Natives even had a vision of the Franciscans coming down the mountain slopes that rim the Gila River valley.
Look for ongoing news about the new school, which will be named St. John the Baptist Mission School. Our next planning meeting is in February when the Cana team will present a curriculum proposal.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president and co-founder of Cana Academy.
All images courtesy of Andrew J. Zwerneman.