When Sister Marijane Ryan first came to Navajo country nine years ago, she had never been farther than an hour away from her native Boston. A nun in the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, she was sent west to St. Michael’s, Ariz., two miles from the capital of the Navajo nation, to nurse another nun who was ill with cancer. Sis-tah (as the Navajos call her, mimicking her Boston accent) has stayed there ever since—and for compelling reasons.
Soon after she arrived a Navajo family brought her its 8-year-old son, a polio victim. “I had trained in Boston at Kennedy Memorial Hospital, a center for the handicapped,” she says, “so I accepted the assignment.” She taught the child to walk and learned to speak Navajo in the process. Her next patient was a 3-year-old cerebral palsy victim, the grandson of a medicine man. Soon the “moccasin telegraph” had brought her 25 patients.
Today Ryan, 36, heads St. Michael’s Special Education School, with 111 handicapped children. The $380,000-a-year institution is funded by the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity, the Arizona Department of Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Because additional dormitories are needed, Ryan includes fund raising in her long workweek—up to 80 hours. She spends at least three of them each day in prayer (“I’m sure He is sick and tired of listening to my building program needs,” she smiles).
Her day begins at 6 a.m., shortly before she starts breakfast for the dorm kids. “The Navajo faith,” says the therapist-missionary, “is based on harmony with nature, animals and all living things. Because of the Indians’ reverence for life, my old values of Christianity have been enhanced, and I find a common ground with them.”
“She walks in beauty,” say her Navajo friends. But they are not quoting Byron—that’s their way of saying Ryan is in tune with all living things.