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Ajo - Immaculate Conception School

St. Catherine Indian Mission, Ajo

Vacation School, St. Catherine Indian Mission in Ajo, Arizona, Summer, 1948. Pictured (L-R) are Sister Rita Catherine Cole, Sister Mary Timothy Adams, Fr. Regis Rhoder, O.F.M., Sister Mary Peter Murphy, Sister Helen Marie Haley, and Sister Harold Ann Jones. 

In 1942, Father Albert Knier, an ex-Army chaplain, suggested the missionary possibilities of Ajo, Arizona, a small town near the border to Mexico and home to a large copper mine owned by the Phelps Dodge Company, to the Sisters of Charity missioned in Tucson. Srs. Suzanne McIntyre and Dominica O’Connor were the first to conduct catechetical instruction in the summers of 1942 and 1943. The following year, Father George Feeney became pastor and asked the Sisters of Charity to conduct year-round catechetical and social service work in Immaculate Conception Parish.

On October 27, 1943, Father Feeney wrote the following to Mother Claudia Glenn, Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill:

“Ajo is a very thriving little town of about 7500 persons, with at least four hundred Catholic children. Sisters Suzanne and Dominica taught summer school here, and I understand they had 150 children enrolled. .. I honestly consider Ajo a very fertile field for real missionary work. Most of the children are Mexicans of a very high caliber. Their fathers make a good living as miners and mill workers for the Phelps Dodge Mining Company. The town is half American and half Mexican, with many good Catholics, and hundreds of ‘Catholics in name only.’”

Mother Claudia, having corresponded with Sr. Suzanne about the great need for missionaries in Ajo, agreed to send the Black Caps.

Father Feeney with a group of the Sisters.

Father Feeney with a group of Sisters missioned to Ajo, c. 1950s.

 “Sister Bertrand Wall, Sister Mildred Stephen, and Sister Theodosia Murtha were assigned to this apostolate. Since the parish extended to Gila Bend, their influence was far-reaching. Isolation from the ‘big city’ has made Ajo a town of simple devoted people eager to hear the Word of God,” according to the Diocesan Archives on Sisterhoods.

On November 18, 1944, Sr. Mary Bertrand Wall explained the situation to Mother Claudia, “Mother, you would be surprised at the number up to twenty who have never been to Confession. There is certainly plenty of missionary work to do here. How lovely that our Community is winning souls for God.”

Summer Vacation School, Immaculate Conception Church.  Srs. Theodosia Murtha, Vincent de Paul Baker, Harold Ann Jones
  1. Summer Vacation School, Immaculate Conception Church. Srs. Theodosia Murtha, Vincent de Paul Baker, Harold Ann Jones

Sister Mildred Stephen was soon after replaced by Srs. Ann Cecelia Hungerman and, later, Sr. Harold Ann Jones.

The Sisters continued their catechetical and social work for several years.

Below is a testimony written by Sr. Agnes Vincent Brazill in 1948.

“In the afternoon Father Palmer Plourde, Father John Cullinan, Father Regis, O.F.M., from the Indian Church, Brother Stanley (the Franciscan’s housekeeper) and the three of us drove to Sonoyta for more Confirmation preparation. Now Sonoyta is a southern border town, it is in Mexico. Since no foreign priest is allowed in that country, we had to stay on this side of the border and have people come to us. The Benton home became our headquarters. Mr. Benton is the border patrolman. He is not Catholic, but his Mexican wife is. After we registered twenty-eight babies for Baptism, the Fathers christened them. Since priests came only every two years, most babies must wait quite awhile. That is why there were so many at one time.

[On another day for confirmations] Earlier in the morning, Mrs. Benton told us that many of the people would not come because they had no money. We asked a man if he would go across the border and try to get the word around that they didn’t need money. As he was going through town, he met a friend with a loud speaking system on his truck…. So he went through the streets of Sonoyta telling the people that the American priests and Bishop were at Benton’s baptizing and Confirming for nothing. In no time we had a huge crowd. Many of them barefooted. One little boy had shoes but he carried them until he reached the house, to save them.”

Vacation School in Hyder, Arizona.  Two-week summer session.  Srs. Agnes Vincent Brazill,  Marie Patrick Sullivan
  1. Vacation School in Hyder, Arizona. Two-week summer session.  Srs. Agnes Vincent Brazill,  Marie Patrick Sullivan

The work in Ajo was exhausting, strenuous, but completely satisfying for the Sisters who were missioned there. They experienced a real dedication to the Catholic faith and hoped to guide the people of southern Arizona and Mexico to a closer relationship with God.

In 1949, Sr. Agnes Vincent wrote, “We taught three different places for Vacation School. We started in Hyder, a little town about 97 miles from Ajo, but included in the radius of the parish. Here we taught in the public school which was a two roomed affair made from box cars. During the time we stayed here we lived in a little three roomed house. Father Plourde slept on the schoolroom floor when he came to say Mass for us. The children here had never been in a church except when they had been baptized. They didn’t even know how to bless themselves...”

Immaculate Conception School, Ajo, Arizona.  Opened with kindergarten, grades 1 and 2.

1952-1954, Immaculate Conception School, Ajo, Arizona. Kindergarten, grade 1 and grade 2. 

Immaculate Conception Church, Ajo, Arizona

Immaculate Conception Church, Ajo, Arizona

Between the heat and poverty, as well as the Spanish and Papago language barriers, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill embraced the mission as a learning experience, but the parish priest had new ideas for formalizing the Catholic education of the local youth.

In 1952, Sr. Agnes Vincent was encouraged to start a kindergarten at Immaculate Conception parish. It would eventually turn into a 8-grade parochial school. Srs. Agnes Vincent Brazill, Harold Ann Jones, Miriam Teresa Hart, and Elizabeth Marie (Joan) McGinley were the first teachers in 1953. The school was built in 1961, but the Sisters held classes in federal housing project buildings owned by Phelps Dodge until its completion.

The Kindergarten class of Immaculate Conception School.

1952, The Kindergarten class of Immaculate Conception School.

Sr. Agnes Vincent Brazill conducts a reading class with her kindergarten group.

1952, Sr. Agnes Vincent Brazill conducts reading class with her kindergarten group. 

After years of financial concerns and the local mining strikes of the late 1960s, as well as a slew of revolving parish pastors, Immaculate Conception School closed in 1972, but the catechetical work of the Sisters did continue for several more years.

Of all of the early missions of the Sisters of Charity in the Southwest, the work in Ajo was far different from their experiences in the major cities of Tucson and Phoenix, but, perhaps, one of the most rewarding.

Immaculate Conception Faculty List

Sisters of Charity missioned to Immaculate Conception School in Ajo, Arizona. Click the list to see more.