Missionary priest ministers to Native Americans

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

Father Earl Henley in 1971. (Record File Photo)

Father Earl Henley in 1971. (Record File Photo)

At the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Earl Henley — a native of Louisville — is a witness for the Catholic Church to the Native American population of five surrounding reservations.

He has devoted the last 14 years of his life trying to repair ancient wounds and evangelizing a people who, he said, largely feel neglected by the universal church.

Father Henley, 71, is the director of the Native American Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernadino, Calif. His work is centered on the Soboba Reservation, where he lives. It’s about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

He grew up in the Portland neighborhood in West Louisville and attended St. Cecelia School, and he was educated by Xaverian Brothers at Flaget High School for two years.

It was at Flaget, Father Henley said, that he first discovered his call to religious life.

“I was sitting in a class of 30 to 40 guys and got an overwhelming urge to be a missionary,” he vividly recalled in a phone interview earlier this week.

He joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart after researching several missionary orders and finished his education at the congregation’s high school and college seminary in Illinois. He was ordained a priest in 1969. From 1971 to 1994, he served as a missionary priest in Papua New Guinea, a role he wholeheartedly embraced.

“I wanted to go and spread the good news of the Gospel to other places,” he said. “In Papua New Guinea, the whole concept was to get the people to take ownership, to enable and empower them, then leave. I saw that fulfilled in New Guinea.”

He said his dream was the same for his work with Native Americans in California. But, that work has proven more difficult.

Father Henley called his ministry “no easy task” and said without the help of five Missionary of the Sacred Heart sisters, a deacon and a few devoted lay people, he would have given up 10 to 12 years ago.

“You have to remember they went through a lot of turmoil in American history,” he explained. “Their lands were taken from them. They were put on a reservation, told to build mission schools. They were told to cut their hair and learn English.”

He sees his role as simply “offering a Catholic presence” to those he serves. Speaking with the clarity of a man with a sincere heart, Father Henley said the biggest thing he has learned during his time on the Soboba Reservation is to open his heart and listen to those he serves.

“A lot of them are Catholic in name only, but we need a new evangelization for them. A lot of times they don’t know what the church is about; that’s the challenge to a missionary,” he said earnestly.

In the last six years, Father Henley said he has put 113,000 miles on his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. He splits his time between five, sometimes six, churches and describes his daily life as “always on the run.” The farthest reservation he ministers to is 80 miles away. Each Sunday of the month he celebrates Mass at a different parish, one of which is small adobe church which sits on a mountainside and does not have electricity.

He resides in a one-room cottage next door to St. Joseph Church on the Soboba Reservation, which serves as the hub of his ministry work. He said Mass attendance is often lacking with the exception of funerals and the anniversary of deaths (both of great significance in Native American traditions) when people “come out of the woodwork” to attend.

Despite the hardships of his ministry, Father Henley calls his work fulfilling.

“I know that what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said in a steady voice.

Father Henley has been plagued with health problems in recent years but said he feels he is on the upswing. Several years ago he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery. Last year he took a four-month sabbatical where he reflected on the future of his mission.

After his sabbatical, Father Henley returned to the reservation with a renewed missionary zeal and energy to continue to evangelize his parishioners, he said.

He said he may not see his dream of the Native Americans taking ownership of the mission churches realized, but he knows he — and those he works with — have planted seeds that they hope will bear fruit. He said he envisions serving another three to five years on the Soboba Reservation, depending on his health.

Then he rattled off a list of new initiatives he hopes to implement in the coming year, including a retreat centered on the family.

“Next year I want to do some basic evangelization,” he said. “I’m thinking of ways to bring it (the Gospel) to them and have them take ownership.”

1 Comment

  • Robert Schwartz says:

    I wish I could join you, Fr. Henley, in your mission to Native Americans. I am an advocate for them in my presence in our KofC Council in Houston, as well as in my communications with several Catholic missions on reservations.

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