Father H. Baxter Liebler
Missionary to the Navajos
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
by Buckley Jensen
Harold Baxter Liebler was born, raised and educated in Brooklyn, New York.
In his youth, he very much wanted to go west to Montana and become a sheepman. His parents and family pleaded with him to go to college for at least one year before heading west to seek his fortune. He stayed and it was during his freshman year at Columbia that he found the Lord Jesus Christ. The experience for him was life changing. His desire to go West was still there, but he decided the souls of men were more important than sheep.
In between his conversion and his going west to begin a ministry, he graduated from college and traveled extensively in this country and abroad.
On an extended automobile journey, he visited all the missions of the Episcopal Church in the United States with the exception of the Seminoles in Florida. That experience changed him. He felt the approach of the Episcopal Church to Native Americans was flawed and he set out to do something about it. In order to do that he needed to find a group of Indians that had never been evangelized.
Father Liebler said there were two things he figured he couldn’t do if he was going to be successful. One was, he couldn’t go into existing missions and say, “now, what the guy that was here before taught you was all baloney. You listen to me and I’ll tell it to you straight.” And the other thing was, you couldn’t go to the Executive Council of the Church and say, ‘”will you stake me to twenty thousand dollars to start a mission so I can show how stupid you have been in the past?”
So he had a problem. Could he find unevangelized Indians? And could he find enough supporters to back him up? Then he could go to the Bishop and say, “these people are in your jurisdiction, they are unevangelized, and they have never seen or heard of the Gospel. I would like to go in there and present it to them at no cost to you.”
Well, Bishop Moulton, Episcopal Bishop of Utah welcomed him with open arms when he found the Southeast Corner of Utah. According to church records, there had never been a church mission there and the good Bishop gave Father Liebler all the verbal support he could afford.
And so it was that in 1942, H. Baxter Liebler, riding a horse and leading a burro with his earthly belongings, found his way through what was then some of the wildest and most remote country in the United States. He came with no guide, only a compass and a general idea of the lay of the land. He knew little Navajo, but somehow found his way along the San Juan River to a spot east of Bluff where he decided to put down roots.
He told the first white man he met upon arrival how he had come. The man knew the country well and was impressed that he had made it at all. Said the man, “You done
G..d…..d good! Some of dem trails is really sons of b…...s.
He purchased 100 acres of land. With very little to work with, he started the laborious process of erecting the mission buildings and chapel, the school and a utility building. Later he got a clinic with beds for eight children and four adults. Many times all the beds were full.
At that time there was no hospital within easy reach. It was nearly two hundred miles to Fort Defiance to the nearest Indian hospital with good facilities. There was a little ramshackle clapboard house at Shiprock with one doctor and two nurses, but very little opportunity of getting anybody there and getting them admitted. So very ill patients were taken to Fort Defiance. That was the beginning of St. Christopher’s Mission.
The mission was named St. Christopher’s because St. Christopher was considered to be the patron of travelers. Father Liebler felt that on his initial pony and burrow trip he had been guided and taken care of by someone’s intercession and that he needed a lot of guidance and help for many years thereafter.
Father Liebler’s reputation as a good and honest man was important to him. He tells of starting his first credit account at the trading post in Mexican Hat which was the only one around at the time. “We went in one day and said that we would like to open a credit account because we don’t like to carry money around. We will pay it within the first week of every month, every time.” The owner said, “you sure you will do that?” I said, “yes, we are not going anywhere…” Well, he opened an account for us. I paid the bill the first day of the month, not the first week. I remember one day I came in with my checkbook and the owner said to the people standing around, ‘I don’t need no calendar around here. I see Father Liebler coming in with his checkbook and I know it is the first day of the month.’”
“There was a market in Blanding--the Parley Redd General Store. Parley was a Mormon and very proud of the fact. We opened an account with him and had stuff sent down on the mail truck. He often introduced me to his friends as ‘the only man in San Juan County I never have to send two statements to?’”
Remembering some of the memorable experiences of his long service to the Native Peoples of San Juan County, Father Liebler cited two experiences as he officiated at wedding ceremonies. In the first marriage he officiated over, the prospective groom said, “I got no job, I guess I get married.” He and his girl had talked it over and she was willing. I said, “Would you like me to take you up to Monticello?” They said yes. When the girl at the marriage bureau said, “that will be two dollars and fifty cents,” they said, “got no money.” Poor old Father Liebler said, “well, that will be your wedding present.”
Then they had to get a blood test, and there was a fee for that. Once again Father Liebler pulled out his wallet. I told him he had to get a ring to put on her finger. I was afraid he was going to welch on the ring, so I brought one I had made along to the ceremony. It wasn’t a very good one, but I hid it on the alter just in case. When it came to the part where the ring is to be given, I said, “where is the ring?” He said, “got no ring.” “Why didn’t you get her a ring?” “No money.”
“As luck would have it his bride had a ring on every finger on both hands--had worn the entire family jewels. She was just loaded down. I said, “Well, let’s borrow this one from your wife.” She said, “All right.” I gave it to him. He gave it back to me. I blessed it and gave it back to him and showed him where to put it on and so the marriage was finished. I did not do very many weddings after that.
“But another memorable wedding was a couple who came to me with a wedding application which said the man already had a wife, but there was a complication to it. He had never had a legal marriage. So, in order to qualify to marry this present woman, he would have to marry the one to whom he hadn’t been married, but by whom he had raised a family. Then he could get a divorce. So this girl said, “you better just celebrate the marriage between these two, so then they can get a divorce if they are not married.”
“I have done some crazy things in my ministry, but never quite done that. I’ve never had to have them take a vow, “have and hold from this time forth,” and so forth.”
Father Liebler has gone to his heavenly reward, but his work continues to this day. Many dedicated people have helped to make St. Christopher’s Mission in Southeastern San Juan County the beacon of light and hope that it has become to so many. But it was one man’s dream, along with his indomitable will and his lifetime of effort and dedication which we remember today.