Desire to build St. Joseph’s survived through two wars

 

LtCol Albert W. Braun, OFM

NOV. 11, 1998 — Not all veterans carried guns — The Rev. Albert Braun wore a chaplain’s cross during both world wars where he found himself in heavy combat, on the front lines of France in 1918 during World War I and in the bloody Battle of Bataan in World War II.

And in between the wars he built a church, St. Joseph’s, a rock of solidity against the New Mexico sky. The church is in Mescalero and visible from U.S. 70 eastbound heading toward Ruidoso.

The church has a beautiful simplicity where Christian and Apache symbolisms marry so compatibly. Braun’s grave is also inside the church.

On an August afternoon in 1916, the newly ordained Rev. Braun arrived by horse-drawn buggy on the Mescalero Apache reservation that would become his life’s focus. Finding the small adobe mission falling down, the young priest began to envision a sturdier, more spacious building.

It had to wait though, because as of April 6, 1917, the United States was at war and Braun volunteered. Wounded on the front lines during the assault on the Hindenburg Line, he refused to leave the field where the wounded and dying needed his care.

Back in Mescalero at war’s end, Braun turned again to his dream of a church. Unable to get permission to repair the deteriorated building, he moved in his usual direct and innovative way: Filling the gaping cracks with explosives, he blew the whole thing up. He had literally cleared the way for his church.

With no funds forthcoming, he began with the $100 left from his Army pay, a hard head filled with a dream, two work-roughened hands and a lot of friends.

Securing passes from his friend W. A. Hawkins, attorney for the Santa Fe Railroad, he traveled to Philadelphia and approached noted architect William Stanton, who, as a gift, drew the plans.

Braun donned overalls and went to work. His old friend Tony Leyva, an expert quarrier and stone mason, came from California and worked for nothing but food and lodging until his death in 1936. Together they quarried and hauled stone from nearby hills, built kilns, burned limestone and mixed mortar.

They dug the foundation, and in 1920 they laid the cornerstone.

In 1921, Braun was transferred and work virtually stopped until his return in 1927 with Tony and Brother Silesius Kraft, who, inspired by Father Braun’s dream, petitioned to join him. Stone by stone, the walls began to rise.

In 1939, the church was dedicated. The basic building was completed, all of native materials - stone from the Mescalero hills, La Luz tiles for the floor and roof and locally quarried marble donated by the owner for the altar.

St. Joseph’s Apache Mission
Mescalero, New Mexico

Recommended Reading:

 

Among the Mescalero Apaches The Story of Father Albert Braun, OFM

 

Dorothy Emerson
University of AZ Press 1973
ISBN: 0-8165-0321-4

The Rev. Richard Cushing gave the stations of the cross.

The church still lacked light fixtures, window glass and a few other items, but Braun’s dream had translated into stone reality.

In 1940 as the clouds of war gathered on both horizons, he was asked by Gen. William Arnold at Fort Sam Houston to help get chaplains to volunteer for the Philippines.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur was preparing for a suspected Japanese attack many feared was coming. Braun was the first to volunteer and he embarked for Manila after volunteering.

Braun was able to figure out the arrival time of the 200th Coast Artillery (New Mexico’s National Guard) in the Philippines from a letter sent to him and met the ship.

The chaplain of the 200th, Episcopal minister Ted Howden, an old friend of Braun’s, approached his fellow priest after the Japanese attacked on behalf of those in his regiment who wanted a Catholic priest.

Braun agreed and traveled regularly between his own post on Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula. He was there during the four-month-long battle and Braun was made honorary chaplain of the 200th.

After Bataan fell in April 1942 and Corregidor in May 1942, Braun spent 3-1/2 years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in filth, brutality, disease and the starvation.

As MacArthur’s forces neared the Philippines, the prisoners were moved north to prevent their liberation and to work in the Japanese war industry.

In the black hold of an infamous “Hell Ship” with 1,000 men, Braun led them in prayer and song to sustain hope and sanity. In Japan, he continued nursing the sick, burying the dead and giving solace in a thousand ways.

At war’s end, he was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Silver Star for meritorious service.

More important to him was his return to his beloved Mescalero and the resumption of his clerical duties. Foremost was the completion of St. Joseph’s.

On his death in 1983, he was buried inside the church, his funeral attended by throngs of mourning Apaches, wartime soldiers and ex-POWs.

Perhaps the climax of his return came Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day 1945, when Braun solemnly dedicated his beloved church to the memory of all American soldiers of both world wars who did not return to the land for which they gave their lives.

 

Dorothy Cave, Guest Writer, Roswell Daily Record