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Father Earl Henley, who heads the Native American Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernardino, stands outside his one-bedroom home next to St. Joseph's Catholic Church on the Soboba Reservation. On Sundays, the pews at reservation churches are rarely full. Wedding bells almost never ring. Confessions are seldom uttered. “I don’t have 1,500 people to say Mass for,” said the 69-year-old Henley.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Henley performs a blessing during Mass at St. Joseph's.The Native American Ministry includes 15 tribes, most tended by other priests and sisters. Henley regularly visits five.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Henley shakes hands with parishioners after Mass. His territory is vast. On Sundays, he can be found behind the wheel of his Toyota 4x4 pickup, driving dusty roads near Coachella Valley date orchards or navigating the steep mountain passes into Anza’s high desert.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Henley leads St. Joseph's parishioners in prayer. He talks of taking a sabbatical to reassess his mission. He wants to live on the reservations, insert himself into the daily routines, as he once did as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Arionna Ward, 4, looks out through the open doors of the St. Rose of Lima Chapel during Easter Mass. Founded in 1878, the chapel is on the Santa Rosa Reservation, which remains the most impoverished of the ones Henley oversees.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

After conducting Easter Mass, Henley shakes the hands of departing perishoners at Our Lady of the Snows Chapel on the Cahuilla Reservation. "You can’t have a priest who comes in saying he will straighten out the Indians, because he will be destroyed and he will destroy whatever has been planted here,’’ Henley said. “So you come with a missionary vision. That means hang out and listen. You have to have the patience of Job.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Henley stands outside the St. Rose of Lima Chapel on the Santa Rosa Reservation. Born in Louisville, Henley describes himself as a “city slicker at heart.’’ He said he felt the “calling” to become a missionary when he was a 16-year-old sophomore at a boys high school run by the Xaverian Brothers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

An elder of the Cahuilla tribe, 78-year-old Annie Hamilton recalls being taken by Catholic missionaries to St. Boniface boarding school in Banning, where she and other Indian children were forced to abandon their tribal ways. She remembers scrubbing floors and hand-washing dishes in scalding water. “They hit us with rulers so we wouldn’t talk our language,” she said.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

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Tending a parish of scattered tribes

Father Earl Henley is a portrait in perseverance. As head of the Native American Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernardino, he tends a parish of scattered tribes that include the newly wealthy, awash in casino profits, as well as the destitute hidden in the deep folds of the San Jacinto Mountains.

They are a people bound by loss, having suffered the near-obliteration of their native languages, homelands and ancestral ways. The Catholic Church’s harsh treatment of Native Americans and intolerance of their spiritual rituals persisted well into the 20th century. Elders still tell stories of being ripped away from their parents and shipped off to parochial schools.

For the last decade, Henley has tried to salve those wounds and increase the flock.

It is hard going.

Read Phil Willon’s story, “A priest tries to make amends with the past”


  1. October 6, 2011, 7:12 pm

    Father Earl, glad to see that you are getting a little exposure of your mission. Hope that you will find it helpful. How does the home mission , compare with your time in a foreign mission. Most likely a little the same, and a little different. Take care and I will say a prayer for you and your ministry. Larry Stulpin

    By: l.stulpin
  2. November 9, 2011, 11:30 am

    Fr. Henley,

    Please send your email and mailing address for our KofC Council.

    Thank you.

    Robert N. Schwartz


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