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Friar feels ‘blessed’ by mission experience

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Franciscan Father Blaine Grein poses with parishioners in Chinle, Ariz., where he served from 1978-2012. (Courtesy Photo)
Franciscan Father Blane Grein poses with parishioners in Chinle, Ariz., where he served from 1978-2012. (Courtesy Photo)

Franciscan Father Blane Grein has been a priest for 56 years. Most of that time has been spent in mission work, for which the friar is grateful. “I feel I’m a very blessed individual,” he said.

He originally hails from St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Carthage, and recalls an early interest in ministering to other cultures, inspired by two relatives who were missionaries. An uncle was expelled from China during the Communist takeover; a cousin passed away in the Philippines. With multiple family members serving as Franciscan priests and sisters, the choice of a religious community was obvious.

Father Grein was ordained in 1962, and immediately wrote a letter to his order requesting a mission assignment. “I just had a strong desire to be a missionary,” he explained. The young priest’s first assignment was in Zuni, N.M., at the St Anthony Indian Mission.

This was followed by a stint in the Philippines, where he found the largely Catholic population to be faith filled and actively involved in church work. “I loved my time there,” he said. “I had a lot of adventures.”

His next move took him to a peninsula outside of New Orleans and the opportunity to minister to one integrated parish and two African-American faith communities.

In 1978, he learned of an opening for a priest at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Chinle, Ariz., serving the Navajo people. He arrived to find an old stone church with structural issues and the challenge of ministering at three distant missions – Lukachukai, Many Farms and Pinon.

“It’s a good thing I’ve always been a handy kind of guy,” said Father Grein, recalling the many cracks he repaired in the church during his first few months in Chinle. Before long, one of the men approached him and expressed the community’s desire for a Hogan church modeled after the traditional Navajo dwelling. Father Grein was fully supportive, but also concerned because the local diocese required the parish to raise 90 percent of the building fund before construction even began.

Ten years and many basketball tournaments, bake sales, and bingo games later, their efforts were successful.

Dedicated on June 3, 1990, the six-sided church faces east to welcome the rising sun, and beautifully blends aspects of native culture and Catholicism, including sand stone paintings of the Stations of the Cross hanging right next to Navajo statues and figurines.

Father Grein speaks with affection for the people with whom he has lived, worked and prayed for decades. “The Navajo people have a beautiful culture of their own, a spirit of prayerfulness. They have many traditional ceremonies, dances and songs for healing and to bless and thank the Lord,” he said. “They recognize the Great Power that created Mother Earth and blessed it in so many ways. I was grateful to learn their ways, experience their prayer and celebrate with them.”

He officially retired in 2012, and came back to Cincinnati to rest and address some health issues. The missionary spirit remained strong, though, and Father Grein was soon filling in for his fellow friars in Southfield, Mich., and Jamaica.

Last September, he returned to the Southwest and currently ministers at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Fort Defiance, Ariz.

“I wanted to keep busy and I loved what I was doing,” he admitted.

Looking back on his years as missionary, Father Grein said, “I value and treasure each assignment and the opportunity to get to know and respect how people do things in their culture. I never had a bad experience. With every assignment, I would tell myself. “For a year, keep your mouth shut, but your eyes and ears open. Listen, learn and ask questions.’”

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