A few days ago, one of my favourite Franciscan friars working in the Diocese of Gallup passed away. I never spent as much time around him as I did with other Franciscan friars, alas. However, I respected him as a very accomplished man. He was one in a large number of Franciscans who came to the Reservation to work. He was a New Mexico native. He was from the town of Roswell, NM. He was ordained in 1954.
Father Cormac spent his priesthood working among the Navajo people. He arrived shortly after his ordination and served in St. Michael’s, Chinle, Houck, and some other places. He hosted a radio program, all in Navajo, for nearly 60 years. The radio program, known as The Padre’s Hour, is still broadcast. A Navajo brother of the Franciscan order hosts it today. Additionally, he played a crucial role in translating the Mass from Latin into Navajo, first in 1966. Around 1964, limited use of the vernacular languages was permitted. Around 1968, permission for the entire Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular was given. However, with the publication of the revised Missale Romanum of Paul VI in 1969, new translations had to be completed. In 1982, a committee of five Franciscans and five Navajo elders were commissioned by the Most Rev. Jerome J. Hastrich, then Bishop of Gallup, to complete the translation. It was approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 1986.
Navajo is a very difficult language for non-native speakers. Like Korean, the word order is completely different. Navajo verbs behave in a similar manner to Korean verbs. Also, like Chinese, it is a tonal language. It’s possible for a non-Navajo to learn the language, but it takes years and years of dedicated hard work.
According to this article, Father Cormac is the last priest working in the Diocese of Gallup who could say Mass fluently in Navajo and preach in the language. All of the others have died or been transferred. He had such a knowledge of the people and their language. After all, he spent nearly 60 years working among them. Anything you wanted to know about the language or people, he knew it.
Here’s a video of him saying the Prayer of St. Francis.