Unlike many of the missions in New Mexico, St. Joseph Apache Mission in Mescalero was a labor of love, built as a gift to the Mescalero Apache over the course of two decades by one of the last frontier priests in New Mexico, Father Albert Braun.
Born John William Braun to German immigrants in Los Angeles, California on September 5, 1889, Father Braun was ordained as a Franciscan priest in 1915. His first assignment was the Mescalero Apache Reservation.
Frontier Priest in Mescalero
When Father Albert arrived in a horse drawn buggy in 1916, Mescalero was little more than a few teepees in a clearing. His parish encompassed 720 square miles, most of which was only accessible on horseback. He didn’t speak Apache and his parishioners didn’t speak English. The parish resources consisted of a crumbling church and a two room, bed bug infested rectory. However, Father Braun considered these obstacles “insignificant”, enthusiastically embracing the rugged, remote environment and dispatching the bed bugs with sulfur and soap.
Tenacity, and an indomitable, optimistic outlook, anchored in faith, were Father Albert’s hallmark traits. He acquired a good horse, developing callouses as he acclimated to his new home. A member of the tribe, Eric Tortilla, befriended him. They rode together, with Eric helping Father Albert as a guide and interpreter.
Father Albert got to know the people in his community; camping and dining with them. He developed a deep appreciation for Apache culture and religious traditions. Unlike many Franciscan priests before him, he recognized and respected the spirituality infused in Apache culture and advocated on behalf of traditional practices. For example, when the church deemed the Apache puberty rite “pagan” and tried to ban it, Father Albert took a bishop to the ceremony. He explained and interpreted each facet, highlighting the intrinsic faith inherent in the ceremony and drawing parallels to Christian beliefs. Ultimately, the bishop acquiesced, which preserved the ancient tradition.
Furthermore, Father Albert’s respect and love for the Mescalero Apache was reciprocated. Church attendance increased to the point that the tiny, dilapidated chapel could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. He considered building a new church, but the plan was put on hold due to World War I.
World War I Army Chaplain
After more than two and a half years of effort by President Woodrow Wilson to keep the United States out of World War I, America joined the fray in April, 1917. Father Braun enlisted as an Army Chaplain despite his superior’s initial resistance. He shipped out to France on April 6, 1917 and was stationed on the front lines of the Allied campaign that ended World War I, the Meuse–Argonne offensive.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the largest and deadliest military campaign in U.S. history. French and American troops lined the entire Western Front, with a total of 1.2 million American soldiers involved. The battle raged from September 26, 1918 until the Armistice on November 11, 1918. By the end of the campaign, there were over 350,000 casualties, including 26,277 American deaths.
During the bloody battle, Father Braun refused to stay in relative safety at the rear. He chose to join the soldiers on the front line, charging “over the top” without authorization during the first assault on the Hindenburg Line. Though he was hit in the jaw by shrapnel, he refused to leave the field. He continued to provide last rites to dying soldiers and helped bandage the wounded.
Father Albert returned from the battlefields of Europe in 1918 with a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a mission. The cathedrals of Europe had inspired him. He wanted to build the Mescalero Apache “a huge stone church that would last for centuries.”
St. Joseph Apache Mission
Father Albert returned to Mescalero in 1918 with a dream. However, when he initially requested permission to replace the deteriorating church, he was denied. He applied skills acquired during military service, discreetly filling the cracked walls with gunpowder. When a mysterious explosion gutted the church a few months later, the Indian superintendent condemned the building and Father Albert received permission to build a new church, but he didn’t have any money. With $100 of remaining Army pay in his pocket and a free pass to ride the railroad, he traveled to Philadelphia to meet with a renowned architect, William Stanton. Stanton was inspired by the priest’s determination and drew the plans as a gift based on medieval edifices, specifically designed for hand labor.
With blueprints secured, Father Albert went to work with a small handful of volunteers. He recruited a friend, Tony Leyva, who was an expert quarrier and stone mason from Santa Barbara, California. Tony was a widow. He offered to work for room and board. His sole request was for his body to be returned to California and buried next to his wife. He remained in Mescalero until his death in 1936, three years before the St. Joseph Apache Mission was completed.
The small crew of Franciscan priests and Mescalero Apache volunteers used primitive tools to dig the foundation, which is seven feet deep in some areas. In the process, they found a prehistoric Jornada Mogollon stone floor, as well as pieces of pottery and artifacts. Subsequent assessment of the site led to the assignment of a New Mexico archeological site number.
The men sourced most of the building materials locally, purchasing timber from local sawmills, roof and floor tiles from La Luz Pottery Plant, and lighting fixtures from Juarez. They built kilns, burned limestone in pits near the mission, mixed mortar, and quarried stone during the winter from a site near Bent, New Mexico, four miles west of Mescalero, hauling the massive boulders to the construction site on trucks in the spring. They laid the cornerstone in 1920.
Father Albert balanced the project with his duties as a priest throughout construction, delivering sermons and conducting baptisms, marriages, and burials. When he was briefly transferred from Mescalero in 1924, work on the mission ceased until he returned in 1927. However, he returned with new volunteers, including Brother Salesius Kraft, a German ex-artilleryman who petitioned the church to join Father Albert in Mescalero. Sadly, Kraft died during construction. He was crushed while trying to unload one of the stones from a truck. They buried him outside of the church.
In addition to his work in Mescalero, Father Albert became embroiled in the fallout associated with the Mexican Revolution, which raged in Mexico for a decade between 1910-1920. Though the death count varies, an estimated 1.5 million Mexicans died and 200,000 were displaced, with a large number of refugees fleeing to the United States.
Though academics often cite the 1917 Mexican Constitution as the end of armed conflict, the revised Constitution was hostile to the Church and religion in general. The government took control of the church, seizing property, outlawing foreign-born priests and religious orders, depriving priests of the right to vote or run for office, prohibiting clerical garb outside of a church, and denying citizens the right to a trial for perceived violations. Thousands of priests were murdered for trying to perform the sacraments.
Father Albert and another Franciscan priest, Father Dave Kirgan, volunteered to cross the border to deliver money and messages to their Mexican brethren. They posed as businessmen, purchasing Franciscan property to save it from state seizure. In total, they completed three dangerous trips to Mexico, with Father Albert relishing the covert role of the mission. Later, he became Commissary General for exiled Mexican Franciscans, including providing food and shelter for a group in Mescalero. He converted a barn into living quarters. To cover expenses, he took a job as chaplain for all of the New Mexico and West Texas CCC camps. Rather than perceiving the increased workload as a burden, he leaned into the challenge, saying “Christ told his apostles to go out into the world, not to sit at a desk and move papers around.”
Mescalero parishioners started using the St. Joseph Apache Mission years before it was dedicated. They held midnight Masses around Christmas bonfires under the stars, followed by traditional Apache dances. However, almost twenty years after the first cornerstone was laid, Father Albert’s ambitious dream became a reality when the St. Joseph Apache Mission was completed in 1939, with a dedication ceremony held on July 4th.
The Mission was built in the form of a cross, 64 feet wide and 131 feet long, 50 feet to the rafters and 80 feet to the roof peak. The tip of the cross on the bell tower is 103 feet high and the bell tower walls are four feet thick at the base.
The United States was still recovering from the Great Depression in 1939 so the Mission couldn’t afford glass for the windows or lighting for decades. They covered the windows with boards to protect the interior from the elements. Decades later, a glass company in El Paso, Texas designed and installed windows in 1961.
Call to Service
The joy associated with completing the St. Joseph Apache Mission was overshadowed by global conflict. Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939. The United Kingdom and France declared war two days later. General Douglas MacArthur accurately anticipated an imminent Japanese attack on the United States.
Father Albert received orders to report for duty at Fort Sam Houston on November 1, 1940. He was asked to help recruit chaplains for the Philippines. He immediately volunteered. The Army dispatched him to Manila and assigned him to the 92nd Coast Artillery on Corregidor.
Based on a letter he received from home, he figured out when the 200th Coast Artillery would arrive in the Philippines (New Mexico’s National Guard). He met the ship at the dock. The chaplain for the 200th was an old friend, an Episcopal minister by the name of Ted Howden. When the Japanese attacked, Howden approached Father Albert on behalf of the New Mexicans who wanted a Catholic priest. Father Albert eagerly agreed to provide services for the soldiers, who he perceived as “his boys.” He traveled between his post on Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula, remaining at their side during the four-month Battle of Bataan. For his unwavering loyalty to the troops throughout the doomed defense, the grateful 200th named him their honorary chaplain.
Despite heroic resistance, Bataan Fell, then Corregidor. The Japanese weren’t prepared for the number of POWs. They didn’t have the resources to transport or feed them. They forced the weakened, emaciated soldiers to walk 60+ miles, with little food or water. The Japanese physically abused prisoners, including beating, torturing, and murdering many of them. Some prisoners were randomly stabbed with bayonets.
Once the prisoners arrived at the detention camp, the overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene led to dysentery and the spread of other contagious diseases. The Japanese refused to provide POWs with medical care, forcing U.S. medical personnel to tend the sick and wounded with virtually no supplies.
Father Albert endured 3.5 years of filth, abuse, torture, starvation, and disease in Japanese internment camps. Throughout the experience, he remained resolute, risking torture and death to smuggle medical supplies through the barbed wire for sick and dying servicemen, many of whom were his beloved boys from New Mexico. He nursed the dying and buried the dead. When he became ill, he insisted on giving his rations to others. He defied the guards, holding Mass in secret, until he finally convinced the Japanese to allow services. He shared the work detail, chopping wood for cooking, then stealing food to cook. His skill as a thief earned him the nickname “Al Capone.” When one soldier sarcastically commented that stealing was a sin, Father Albert responded, “Not during war. Letting men die of starvation is a sin.”
As Gen. MacArthur’s forces approached, the Japanese began shipping POWs north to prevent their liberation. They loaded the survivors of the camps on to ships, dispatching them to work as slave labor for the Japanese war industry. Father Albert led a thousand men in prayer in the dark, suffocating hold of one of the “hell ships.” His courage, humor, determination and faith buoyed the spirits of the men around him, many of whom would never return to New Mexico.
The U.S. Army liberated Father Albert and the surviving POWs from Camp Omori in Tokyo Bay on August 29, 1945. He had arrived healthy and strong in the Philippines, weighing 195 pounds. After surviving diphtheria, dysentery, pellagra, several bouts of malaria, and starvation, he weighed 115 pounds when liberated. Of the 1,816 New Mexicans in the 200th Coast Artillery, there were 987 survivors. 829 died in battle, while prisoners, or immediately after liberation.
Broken Body, Buoyant Spirit
Father Albert returned to Mescalero and his beloved Mission to resume his clerical duties after the war. His body was broken, but his spirit was indomitable. On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1945, he rededicated St. Joseph Apache Mission to memorialize American soldiers from both World Wars who would never come home. Later, when he received word that he was receiving a second Silver Star and the Legion of Merit for “gallantry in action,” he requested that the presentation be held in Mescalero. 1,500 Apaches, veterans, clergy, and Army brass attended, with the Mission hosting an enormous BBQ and the Fort Bliss band providing music. Though he appreciated the accolades, he treasured a small book of Christmas greetings gathered from his fellow POWs.
Unfortunately, the brutality of Bataan took a toll on Father Albert’s health. He could no longer serve as a missionary to the Mescalero Apaches due to his injuries. He spent time in multiple Army hospitals recovering. The Army assigned him to less strenuous posts. They sent him to the Marshall Islands to participate in Operation Sandstone, a test of the atomic bomb, then stationed him in Hawaii for two years of aloha therapy. However, he never fully recovered physically. He retired from the Army in 1949. The church reassigned him to a parish in Phoenix, scaling back his responsibilities and daily duties to lighten his workload. However, deteriorating physical health had no bearing on Father Albert’s resilience or will to serve.
Building Up the Barrio
Father Albert moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1949. He continued to overcome obstacles on behalf of the disadvantaged Hispanic parish he served, including breaking up a drug ring and obtaining the release of men arrested for petty misdemeanors, often grumbling that “they can’t support their families in jail.” On a practical level, he successfully advocated for sidewalks and convinced city officials to pave the roads and to upgrade the gas and sewer lines. Four years after his arrival, in 1953, Father Albert was one of the founders of the Sacred Heart Church in the Golden Gate Barrio neighborhood. Crime in the barrio decreased as the congregation grew. As he had done in Mescalero, Father Albert charmed his parishioners with his respect, loyalty, love, hard work and intense faith. He received the Arizona Medal of Honor in 1965 and the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame award in 1979.
Father Albert was an incredible, indomitable soul. He spent his final years in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair after having his leg amputated. He continued to make his rounds, often flipping the wheelchair while doing wheelies over curbs.
Father Albert continued to hold Mass daily for the residents and nuns of the nursing home until five days before his death on March 6, 1983 at the age of 93. Per his request, his body was returned to Mescalero and buried at the St. Joseph Apache Mission in the sanctuary, close to the alter. Hundreds of Bataan survivors, veterans, former parishioners, clergy and friends attended the ceremony. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as his adopted Apache community gave eulogies in their native language to celebrate the life of a man who embodied faith and service.
St. Joseph Apache Mission
Today the Mission remains an active parish church serving 385 families and thousands of visitors from around the world. Under the direction of Brother Peter Boegel, an experienced engineer, numerous upgrades and renovations have occurred over the years. The church relies on individual donations to fund restoration, with Apaches, veterans’ groups, and surrounding neighbors pitching in when they can. Together, the congregation repaired the tile roof, reinforced the center arch, and installed the windows in the 1960s. A radiant heating system was installed in 1986, which involved tearing up the floor tiles. They converted the baptistry at the base of the bell tower into a daily chapel at the same time.
Artwork has been added, including portraits of Apache leaders and a three-part mural depicting an Apache puberty ceremony with traditional crown dancers. The Stations of the Cross were sent to Mescalero from the Philippines, mounted on backgrounds painted by a local parishioner, Bruce Klinekole II. Albuquerque artist Robert Lentz painted the Apache Christ above the altar in 1989 as a gift to the Mescalero Apache people.
St. Joseph Apache Mission Church
PO Box 187
626 Mission Trail
Mescalero, NM 88340
Parish Office: (575) 464-4473
Restoration Office: (575) 464-4539
Fellow priests called his ministry “just short of a miracle.” A superior castigated him as “an adventurer,” Apaches and migrant Mexicans claimed him “one of us.” To his fellow soldiers he was “a man’s man.” Of himself he chuckled, “I’ve been in mischief all my life.”
God’s Warrior: Father Albert Braun, OFM, 1889-1983, Last of the Frontier Priests by Dorothy Cave