Father Albert Braun, OFM, 1889-1983
I seem to have grown up with Father Albert Braun, though I met him only once, when I was too young to remember. But I heard stories. Everyone who knew the padre had stories—adventure tales, inspiriting dramas, war sagas, comic yarns. Many of these were the recollections of Father Al’s friend and admirer Ashton Hawkins, who was also my great-uncle, and a master raconteur. As a child I listened magnetized by his tales of the frontier New Mexico to which he had come as a young lawyer, and of the people he had known—cowboys, ranchers, railroad men, soldiers, Indians, outlaws—and Father Al, who was even then becoming a legend.
Through the years leading up to the Second World War my family motored frequently from our home in Roswell through the Mescalero Apache reservation, always noting the progress of the great stone mission church Father Albert was building for his beloved Mescaleros. Each year the walls grew taller. In time Saint Joseph’s—‘the Apache Cathedral’ the countryside was calling it—towered on its hilltop against the firred slopes of the Sacramento Mountains. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the church, essentially complete, was boarded up for the duration as Father Al went off to war.
Years later a friend approached me regarding a coming benefit concert in Saint Joseph’s, all funds to go toward its restoration. Would I help with a little publicity? I was delighted. Here was a chance to connect, however tenuously, with an intriguing chunk of history and with this priest who had piqued my curiosity for so long. We arranged to meet with Brother Peter Boegel, the Franciscan friar directing the restoration.
It was a seminal luncheon. We discussed the coming concert, the restoration, and Father Al himself. I was struck with Brother Peter’s intense dedication to preserving the mission, buoyed by his enthusiastic energy. (A ‘friar afire’ I would soon be calling him—though not to his face.) We exchanged Father Al stories, and I admitted I’d always wanted to write a biography of this fascinating man.
“Well then,” he said, “why not start now?”
I detailed the obstacles, chief among them the formidable difficulty of breaching the Franciscan archives, without which no creditable biography was possible: one doesn’t just knock on the monastery door, a female stranger, non-Catholic as well, and say ‘here I am.’
“Let me do some inquiring,” he said.
That was the genesis of God’s Warrior. I had gone to a meeting prepared to write a press release. I left fueled for a biographical journey.
It was a long journey, full of turns and twists and surprises, exciting all the way. Brother Peter introduced me to Franciscans I should know—those who had known the padre, or might have relevant records. He alerted Brother Timothy Arthur, archivist for the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara, who began assiduously gathering material. In time he introduced me to Father Finian McGinn, the Provincial Minister, whose permission I must have to gain access to the closely guarded archives. Father Finian graciously granted the necessary authorization; additionally, having known the padre, he gave me a very perceptive interview.
Meanwhile I was meeting, interviewing, and making friends from Father Albert’s world—his former parishioners, combat veterans with whom he had served, his fellow Franciscans, his migrant friends, and members of his own large family.
Capping it all were the days my husband and I spent as guests in Old Mission Santa Barbara, which houses the archives as well as a number of retired friars, many of whom had known Father Al and added to my stockpile of stories. We arose each dawn to the deep-toned bells, as Father Al had done as a young seminarian; we walked the grounds he had trod. I worked by day in the archives, with the invaluable help of Brother Tim, who had accrued boxes of material. I read letters—hundreds of letters, and passed them to Brother Peter who, having met us in Santa Barbara, did duty on the copy machine.
Days later I left with bags of material.
Lifting off the runway with the precious cargo, I knew then that this book could be written. More, I knew it must be written. The incredible unfolding story was both gift and command.
An individual must be seen in the context of the times, climes, and cultures in which he has lived. Father Al lived many lives in many worlds and made each of them his own. He entwined with the people, absorbed their traditions and their history, and became one with them.
This is the story of a man, and also of the times and places of which he is a part. Home was wherever he was—in the high mountain camps of the Mescalero Apache, the squalid slums of south Phoenix, or the old Franciscan missions of California. His tall figure looms large in the battlefields of France in 1918, the murderous chaos of revolutionary Mexico in the twenties, the bloody sieges of Bataan and Corregidor in 1942, the horrors of Japanese prison camps, and later among the scientists on a lonely atoll in the South Pacific at the fiery birth of the hydrogen bomb.
But the whole exceeds its parts. Though he absorbed these disparate worlds he was never absorbed by them. Braun was a man of singular nature whose very presence redefined the turf. His life was an action-packed drama. A man with a vision, he led strongly and changed lives; and always—to the consternation of some and the delight of many—spiced any situation with his feisty humor. “I’ve been in trouble all my life,” he often chuckled. He strode into a landscape, saw its needs, rolled up his cassock sleeves, and changed the terrain. He welcomed challenges; he dismissed all obstacles as ‘Insignificant!’ An inheritor of the ages, a begetter of tomorrows, Father Albert Braun, OFM, is a man of history.
He was called a living legend. Father Al stories abound—tales of his derring-do, his crusty wit, his spectacular temper, his terrible driving (he wrecked more than one vehicle), his mulish stubbornness, his courage and compassion and conviction. Stories told and retold almost certainly grow with the telling; but though the details may vary the nub is the same, and because they are consistent with his style and character they hold their own truths. However apocryphal—and some may be—they picture the padre as those who knew him saw him.
He left letters behind—reams of letters, to other friars, to friends and family, to and about the soldiers with whom he served during two wars. His handwriting, big and bold and solid like the man himself, penned with a blunt tip in black ink, marches across the pages—sometimes in well reasoned detail, other times impatient, rushed, and innocent of punctuation except for an adamant exclamation point or a heavily underlined opinion.
His spelling is often haphazard, a bit of trivia he doubtless deemed “insignificant” in life’s larger context. I have taken the liberty of amending most of his irregularities to prevent a rash of ‘sics’ from erupting like measles and to prevent any perception some might gain that the padre was unlettered, which he certainly was not. (He spoke several languages, a niece reported, and “thought in Latin because it covers everything.”)
The pen strokes grow shakier with age, infirmity, and failing eyesight; the lines begin to limp, but the strokes stand tall, determined to the end, and the messages they carry remain as strong, the humor as crisp and insouciant.
This profuse correspondence is the bedrock of the narrative. The padre lived in the whirlwind of his own energy; his archival letters vibrate with plans and projects and progress reports. He is impatient with bureaucratic dawdling and lazy people; his greatest fear is of idleness. His letters pulse with dreams, plans, frustrations, and strong opinions, always spiced with his puckish humor.
His personal letters deepen the portrait and add perspective. The warm relations with his family, his love for children, his devotion to his mother (whom as a small child he had often confused with the Blessed Virgin) all shine through. So does the close camaraderie with his military companions (he treasured his life as a soldier), and with his many friends among the laity, of any religion or none. He muses long, perceptively, analytically over the state of the world, his country, and the Church. He bluntly scolds one senator for a cowardly unprincipled policy, teases a congressman for a boisterous Saint Patrick’s Day celebration they had shared; he delights in a picnic or a bottle of good red wine with a cohort, builds a snowman with the children, feeds a pack of dogs he has befriended.
Through his letters ring the sounds of bugles and church bells and the mariachi music he loved, of hammers and blasting powder, the roar of planes and the thunk of bombs before the explosions. We hear the beat of Apache drums, the cry of an infant at baptism, the barking of dogs and the shouts of children at play, the solemn intonations of the Mass; and—this from the memories of many friends—his hearty laugh overriding everything, a deep-from-the-belly laugh springing from pure delight.
The bulk of the padre’s personal correspondence has, in the way of casual letters, been tossed or lost. Those that remain, thanks to the friends and relatives who have saved and shared them, are priceless morsels and, like tasty canapés, both please and tease.
There are gaps in his correspondence. During the padre’s three and a half years as a Japanese POW during World War II, all communication ceased. That vital period is recounted from postwar memories—his own and those of men with whom he served—in his citations for valor in battle, and in his testimony for the War Crimes Tribunal. Details of his sub rosa sorties into revolutionary Mexico are likewise scant. Because priests were being exiled, executed, or driven underground, he wrote or spoke little, lest he endanger others. That fascinating episode is pieced together sketchily from external clues and from the padre’s later reminiscences, sans names and dates. Much still remains a tantalizing mystery.
Of tremendous importance have been the oral recollections of those who knew him. Through their memories we glimpse him rooting lustily at a football game, breaking the ice to swim on a cold-winter dare, dancing a jig at a veterans’ reunion, admonishing some august bishops to ‘get off your butts and out among the people,’ tippling merrily with Mexican officers (who, had they learned his identity, would have hauled him before a firing squad), plodding dustily through the barrios of south Phoenix, his mongrel dog at his side, riding a tough mountain pony through rough terrain to the Apache camps, or dodging bombs and bullets to say mass in the jungles of Bataan. Such recollections—vivid, kaleidoscopic, and entirely unofficial—flesh out the whole, and attest the value of oral history, each memory a unique tile in the grand mosaic of an extraordinary life.
Like the old Spanish padres before him, Father Albert blazed trails; he was truly the last of the frontier priests. He was apostle, builder, secret agent, educator, war hero, humanitarian, drug-and-crime fighter. A superior chastised him as an adventurer. He called himself ‘a rough old soldier’ and hoped to be remembered only as ‘a simple Franciscan friar.’ To his beloved Apaches he was ‘God’s Warrior.’
“How does one sum up his life?” wrote Father Provincial Louis Vitale on Father Al’s death. “The dozen manila folders in his file, plus a book and many articles about him call for a notable biography. He is a legend in his own time.”
In the hope of answering Father Louis’s call I have pursued the memory of Father Al for ten often frustrating but always inspiring years. I hope I have captured some small glimmer of the padre’s vast and gleaming spirit.