THE ERA OF BASQUE CHAPLAINS, 1911-2009
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Reno festival booklet “Renoko Astenagusia” written by Kate Camino & Joseba Etxarri.
Basque people have been traditionally Catholic, and Catholicism is present in much of Basque traditions both in the Old and New World. The fact that Old World Basques are almost all Roman Catholics, as are most of their New World-born descendants, provides an additional difference between the Basques and some other ethnic groups. The Basque language also plays an important role in their religious lives.
According to William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao in Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World in some areas of the West such as Jordan Valley, Oregon, Volta and Fullerton, California, and Elko and Gardnerville, Nevada, there is evidence that Basques were instrumental in erecting the first local Catholic churches. There is also a persistence and appeal of the practice of importing Old World-Basque clergymen to minister to the Basques of the American West.
It was 1910 when bishop R G. Glorieux of Idaho wrote to the bishop of Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the Basque Country, asking for a Basque priest for his diocese. Father Bernardo Arregui, from Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, arrived in Boise in 1911 to serve the Basques in Idaho. He was the first priest to arrive in the U.S. with this particular mission: to serve the spiritual needs of the Basques in the Basque language.
After Father Arregui, Father Patxi Aldasoro from Mutiloa, Gipuzkoa, arrived in Boise in 1954 to serve as chaplain for the Basques, which he did for five years. He visited the sheepherders in the mountains, celebrated mass, and heard their confessions. He also served Basques in Boise and other urban areas.
After Aldasoro, two other priests from the Basque Country arrived in Idaho: Father Santos Recalde from Bizkaia, author of Deunor, Euskal Artzaiak Ameriketanin which he describes some aspects of the Basque life experienced in America, and Father Juan Mari Garatea, who is from Lekeitio, Bizkaia, and the last chaplain. When the sheep industry declined in Idaho, the Basque chaplain appointments also ended.
At the same time, with sponsorship from the diocese of Fresno, California, and the Basque diocese of Baiona, the Golden State became another focal point for the reappearance of Basque chaplains in the States. Father Jean Leon Luro, from Ahatsa, Benafarroa, arrived in California in 1961 to serve the Basques in the surrounding areas. After serving three years, Father Jean Challet, from Hazparne, Lapurdi, took his place until he was replaced six years later in 1970 by Father Guillaume Copentipy, from Milafranga, Lapurdi.
Father Jacques Sallaberremborde, from Altzuruku, Zuberoa, followed him and was the first to relocate to San Francisco, which continues to be the official residence for Basque chaplains. In 1977 Father Jean-Pierre Cachenaut arrived from Iholdi, Benafarroa. Father Cachenaut spent more than eight years in the States and during that time he gained fame as an extraordinary and tireless driver. He was an energetic chaplain who visited every Basque settlement from California to Montana, from New Mexico to Washington state, and even as far east as New York.
In 1986 Father Cachenaut returned to the Basque Country and was then replaced by Father Jean-Pierre Etcheverry from Heleta, Benafarroa. Father Etcheverry returned to the Basque Country in 1989.
After a two-year period without a chaplain, Father Jean Elicagaray, from Buzunaritze, Benafarroa, arrived in San Francisco in 1991 to fill the void. By this time Basque Americans had not only grown accustomed to the Basque chaplains but also cherished having one in the States.
These priests were sorely missed, not only because of the lack of a Basque mass at festivals, or the spiritual guidance they provided, but also because for many they soon became regarded as family members. The absence of the Basque chaplain from 1989 to 1991 did not go unnoticed. After three years, Father Elicagaray went back to his current parish in Donapaleu, Benafarroa. Father Martxel Tillous from Ezkiula, Zuberoa, replaced him in 1994 as the last Basque chaplain until his death in 2009.