Facing extinction, a historic school in pueblo country finds salvation in a Star Wars–loving, vineyard-owning ex-priest. Is it a miracle—or simply good works done well?
Above: Principal Antonio Trujillo gets a surprise hug
from students at St. Joseph Mission School.
THE MORNING SUN is just warming up Mount Taylor when 44 students gather in the chapel at St. Joseph Mission School, east of Grants. Gregorian chant flows from an iPod as the students—some so young their feet don’t touch the floor—sit in quiet reflection. After meditation, a sixth grader reads a passage from the Bible in which Jesus transfigures into radiance. For principal Antonio Trujillo, that’s the cue.
“How can we radiate?” he asks the kids, who range from kindergarteners to seventh graders and represent a mix of Native, Hispanic, and Anglo families from Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, San Fidel, Cubero, and other nearby villages.
Several hands rise. Trujillo calls on the students by name. A smile, one offers. Yes, Trujillo answers: Smiling at someone can transfigure them by making them happy. Saying good morning, says another. Yes to that, too: Recognizing others makes them feel special. And, he continues, we can radiate with our thoughts. Positive thoughts. Thoughts that become words that become actions.
“Our destiny always begins with our thoughts,” Trujillo explains, giving students the message they will carry throughout the day.
This is morning at St. Joseph, the little school that beats the odds. Every day begins with a meditation and a message—“nothing too deep,” one teacher assures me—after which the students attend lessons on religion, math, history, science, and language arts. If precedent is any guide, 80 percent of them will graduate St. Joseph, finish high school, and go on to college. From there, they’ll become business leaders, health care workers, public servants, and even teachers at this very school. Graduates have served in the state legislature and in tribal leadership positions at both Laguna and Acoma pueblos. For a school where the class size is small, the impact resounds.
It wasn’t always this way. Only five years ago, the school was perilously close to closing. That was when officials approached Trujillo and asked him to set a high intention: Save our school. History was on their side.
Opened in 1923, St. Joseph Mission School, along with the two-story building across the street that now serves as a convent, and a small church near the old highway through San Fidel, originally served as the hub of the area’s Franciscan ministry. Back then, this was a much more rural scene, with orchards, beehives, a carpentry shop, and a farm with chickens, goats, and sheep—all necessitated by the remoteness of the area. Even as urban amenities crept closer, the school stood, an imposing two-story adobe building, painted white. It looks like a courthouse or hospital or some other place where you’re supposed to be quiet. Or perhaps it looks more like a monastery, a place where you’re supposed to be reverent.
Back in the day, the Franciscan brothers installed a bell in the tower of the school to call students to classes. That same bell has rung for 93 years, so often that the sides of the clapper have worn flat.
Then came the hard times. Fundraising, a necessity for a Catholic school, started to fall. The number of teachers dwindled. Student enrollment dropped to just 12 as parents chose more robust public schools. When the bell rang at the end of the 2008–2009 year, school was truly out—St. Joseph had no principal and no teachers. It was, in effect, a ghost school: empty desks, unread books, and blank chalkboards.
Fearing the loss of its historic institution, the Diocese of Gallup convened a search committee to find a new principal to bring the school back to life. Among the members of that committee was the gentle, unassuming owner of a local vineyard, a former Franciscan priest himself.
ANTONIO TRUJILLO SMILES a lot. He’s a calm, amiable man, whose eyebrows readily rise to express delight. Even upon just meeting him, I already suspect he would advocate on my behalf if there’s any discrepancy on my record come Judgment Day.
We visit in his office—which, for the record, is the first time I’ve ever been summoned to a principal’s office. On one wall hangs an antique metal press that the Franciscans at the parish once used to make communion wafers. On a filing cabinet is a plush toy of Darth Vader, evil Sith Lord of the Star Wars movies. A science fiction fan, Trujillo likes Star Wars in particular, for the strong protagonist and the classical hero’s journey.
Trujillo’s own journey began not long ago in a village not far away, San Rafael, near Grants, where he served as an altar boy. That’s how he came to know the Franciscans. He liked the priests’ down-to-earth nature. So in 1982, just out of college, he entered the order, and seven years later he was ordained. After serving in Albuquerque and Roswell, he was transferred to the Acoma-Laguna parish in 1996, the very place he’d grown up. He traveled to the pueblos and throughout the smaller, predominantly Hispanic villages in the area to perform Mass and conduct wedding ceremonies and funerals, while building relationships with tribal leaders and families. On Thursdays, back when St. Joseph was doing well, he came to the school to say Mass.
In 2000, however, Trujillo chose to pursue another life. He left the order, and shortly after, he married. With his wife, he opened Guadalupe Vineyards at their house just up the road from the school. The winery succeeded, doing well in competitions against much larger concerns from Napa Valley and Sonoma.
When the diocese asked him to help find a new principal, he happily joined the search committee. But their first pick stayed only a year. Same with the second. In between, Trujillo posted a brief but laudable stint as interim principal. As the start of the 2011 school year loomed, the diocese asked him to take over the school. Permanently. Trujillo thought about it. Beyond revitalizing the school, he realized that he could preserve a legacy the Franciscans had started in New Mexico at Acoma Pueblo in 1629. This could be his new calling. Those thoughts became words became actions. He accepted the position.
Lacking a background in education, he sought the advice of experts, visiting with superintendents and educators in other school districts. He spoke with community members, parents, churches. He used the personal connections he had made in his Franciscan days to attract new students. At St. Joseph Mission School, he told people, students could nurture a sense of spiritual identity—a Catholic school that also educated Baptists, Jews, and other denominations.
The message resonated. Little by little, pegs on the walls of the main hallway filled again with backpacks and jackets. Today, enrollment has grown to 60 students, with five teachers and five staff members. Funding has similarly increased, with contributions from the Diocese of Gallup, the Southwest Indian Foundation, Catholic Charities, and generous supporters. Donors delivered 1,000 new books to the library. A new school bus service will start. A pre-K program began. Keres, the language traditionally spoken at Acoma and Laguna pueblos, may soon join the curriculum. Beyond that, students also benefit from the gold standard of field trips. Seventh graders went whale watching in Santa Barbara, California, last year, where they also exchanged gifts of Acoma pottery for sage from the local Chumash tribe. In 2015, students performed traditional dances and sang at the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, then served as pages at the Roundhouse. This year, they’ll go to Chaco Canyon.
This little mission school, Trujillo says, “is just a magical place.” There is joy in his eyes. In accord with the Franciscans’ willingness to adapt to local cultures, he brought in teachers from Acoma and Laguna and encourages the mix of Catholicism and Native religious practices, the same way a pueblo feast day does.
“This is a place where two worlds come together,” he tells me, “and celebrate the gifts of each other’s culture and identity. ”And traditions. Trujillo leads me to a crooked ditch in front of the school that’s flowing with a steady stream of water. St. Joseph is part of the village acequia system, which carries water from the springs in Mount Taylor through the fields of San Fidel and farther south. The school gets the water for four hours every Thursday morning, using it to irrigate a quarter-acre garden. Like everything here, Trujillo sees the garden as a learning experience. Getting dirt under their fingernails is a good way to give the kids an authentic sense of the world. Every spring, students plant seeds for tomatoes, chile, squash, corn, and pumpkins, plus marigolds to help keep rabbits away. Come fall, the students will harvest the crops. Some will go to the school cafeteria, the rest to pueblo leaders for their feast days.
Above: A day in the life of St. Joseph teems with art classes,
a little bell ringing, work in the garden, and playtime.
As we stand together in the garden, the brown dirt underfoot, the waters of the acequia trickling past, the sunlight warming our faces, Trujillo does what any self-respecting ex-Franciscan would do: He shares a parable.
Two farmers live side by side. Despite the lack of rain, one farmer stays busy tending his field, while the other does nothing. The lazy farmer asks the busy farmer why he works so hard. And the hardworking farmer responds that he wants to be ready when the drought ends. “That’s what we do here,” Trujillo says of his school. “We work hard to prepare the fields, so that when it rains, they’re ready.”
HAVING MINISTERED IN POORER communities, Trujillo knows the value of making good use of resources. Not surprisingly, then, volunteers matter. Parents, for example, help with Christmas and feast day events. Community members tend the garden throughout planting season. Other people help as teachers. Like Kent Ferguson. He first came to St. Joseph in 2014, after he overheard Trujillo’s wife tell another woman how much work her husband was putting into the school. Ferguson, having founded schools in New Zealand and California, introduced himself, and when he met Trujillo a short time later, the educators formed an immediate bond. Now he leads a weekly assembly at the school known as Tau Junction, a mix of ceremony, play, and learning. I attend one assembly and get to see all this in action. One student demonstrates the alphabet in sign language. The kindergarten kids show off the puppets they made. Ferguson then directs a funny skit about a farmer whose horse runs away, but I lose track of the plot midway through—it’s hard to be an adult when you’re in a room full of giggling kids.
The arts program is run by Jake Himovitz, fresh out of art school himself, a Jewish man happily volunteering at a Catholic school. “I know all the prayers now,” he jokes. “It’s been very positive. Everyone asks me about my culture, and I get to learn about theirs.” A few times, he’s been invited to a traditional deer dinner at a student’s home in Laguna Pueblo. And he enjoys the good-natured joshing he receives about how he needs to find a good woman and settle down.
“I’ve become part of the community,” he says.
I get the chance to volunteer myself when Trujillo makes me part of a lesson plan. Students in a fourth-and-fifth-grade class draw stories that emphasize a moral theme, and they want me to review them. Some of the morals, like those in the stories “Too Much Candy” and “The Chocolate Problem,” hit uncomfortably close to home. Others, like “Snow Troopers Attack,” prove that ethics apply even in outer space.
I even participate in one story as it’s being written when a 10-year-old asks me for another word for “technologies.” I can’t for the life of me think of one, and as I struggle to try, in that moment is born in me a new respect for teachers everywhere. The student learns not to shoot so high in her next inquiry, asking me simply if I think purple would be a good color for one of the houses in her story. I do, and the drawing continues apace. Entitled “The Two Best Friends,” the story concerns two friends who begin fighting over nail polish and cell phones. The sky grows darker over their stick-figure heads as the dispute intensifies. But after a day passes, the two friends find that they’re less enthused by their anger. They apologize, then go to the park to play. The last page shows them smiling happily as a yellow sun shines down from above.
That sun reminds me of Trujillo’s discussion at morning prayer. Because the whole idea behind what he and the school are doing—the trips, the plantings, the exposure to other cultures and religions and ways of life—is to introduce students to a world larger than themselves. And to get them out into that world so they learn that they can participate in it themselves. In building their life skills, the school is preparing them to follow their own story arcs, to start their own heroic journeys. To radiate. “We want our students to bring a sense of hope and light to a world that’s cynical and sometimes angry,” Trujillo says.
—David Pike won the 2016 Writer of the Year award from the International Regional Magazine Association for his New Mexico Magazine stories about small towns. He is the author of Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers (UNM Press).
Take a Tour
Schedule a tour of St. Joseph Mission School. (505) 552-6362; stjosephmissionschool.com; on Facebook
Say a Prayer
Attend daily morning prayers and Thursday Mass, all at 8 a.m. Check in at the school office when you arrive. 26 School Road, San Fidel
Enhance your visit with hands-on help as a teachers’ assistant in arts, music, and computer classes, or with carpentry, plumbing, and office skills. Call Antonio Trujillo at 505-552-6362 to talk about options.
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