Father Maurice Henry Sands, pastor of St. Alfred parish in Taylor, Michigan, has been appointed as a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Cultural Diversity.
A member of the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes, Fr. Sands is the first Native American to be appointed as a staff member of the Subcommittee on Native Americans, which was created in 2008. He has been involved with the subcommittee in different capacities since its beginning.
Fr. Sands was raised on Walpole Island, an Indian reservation located between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. Raised in a “loving and faith-filled home,” he described to the Michigan Catholic journal how he worked in the corporate banking sector in Toronto, but sensed a greater calling at the age of 40. Nine years later, in 2005, he became the Archdiocese of Detroit's first Native American priest.
From 2006 to 2009, he served on the board of the Tekawitha Conference, an organization representing 1.5 million Native American and Aboriginal Catholics in the U.S. and Canada. A gifted multilingual speaker, he has also been involved with Hispanic ministry in his archdiocese. Fr. Sands will remain based in Michigan during his consultancy to the secretariat.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, chairman of the Subcommittee on Native Americans and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, remarked that "the Native American Catholic Community in the United States rejoices in the appointment of our brother.” The archbishop stated that “Father Sands is extraordinarily prepared for this service and will represent well the views and needs of the Native American people of the Church.”
Native American Catholics occupy a profoundly significant, yet difficult position within the North American church. Although the Church's original ministry in the “new world” of North America was directed toward their ancestors, many efforts to spread the Catholic faith in the Americas were also intertwined with the activities of European explorers and colonists.
Catholicism remains the religion of about 20 percent of Native Americans. Some of the pastoral challenges involved in ministry to their communities include persistent conditions of poverty, increased risks of alcoholism, geographical isolation, and the general difficulties involved in presenting what may still be perceived as a “European,” rather than universal and global, religion.
Speaking to the Archdiocese of Detroit's Mosaic magazine in 2005 about his work with Hispanic communities, Fr. Sands said that an intercultural role came naturally to him. “As a Native American,” he remarked, “I have had the privilege and opportunity of being a bridge builder my entire life.”
As a consultant to the USCCB's Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, Fr. Sands' new bridge-building work will involve reporting to the bishops on pastoral issues in his community, as well as developing electronic resources and workshops for ministry to Native Americans.