Parish News: Pastor of Sacred Heart Church named new pastoral coordinator for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

posted on January 18, 2011
by Shannon Grooms, Our Lady of the Sioux Church

Fr. Steve Sanford SJ, who served 13 years as pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Pine Ridge, has been named the new pastoral coordinator for the Catholic churches on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Fr. George Winzenburg SJ, president of Red Cloud Indian School, made the announcement last month.

In his new position, Fr. Sanford will work with parish leaders and parishioners in planning, program development, school and parish communication, and perhaps most importantly, helping to develop local Lakota leadership in the parishes.

Fr. Sanford grew up on the edge of a small town in rural northeast Massachusetts, the second oldest and only son of five siblings. He attended Catholic school through sixth grade. He earned a bachelor’s in computer science from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. From there he worked for computer companies in New York City and Paris, France. Throughout this time, he felt a calling to the priesthood, but with the hectic pace of his profession wasn’t having much time to discern it. He decided to spend a year teaching at an Episcopalian boarding school, and from there, he joined the Jesuits.

His 11 years of Jesuit formation took him many places, he says.

Fr. Sanford studied theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His studies brought him to Jamaica to obtain clinical data for his doctrine of ministry, but spent much of his time where he was needed most: working in parish ministry in Kingston. He came back to the United States to finish his doctorate with plans to return to Jamaica. During this time, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and due to the lack of available health care in Jamaica, it was decided he would stay in the United States, ultimately coming to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“My spirit feels more at home here than anywhere else,” Fr. Sanford says. “I love the people and the place.”

Throughout his 13 years at Sacred Heart, Fr. Sanford has reflected on how his multiple sclerosis has provided challenges and opportunities.

“When I first got here, I had no idea how fast the disease would progress. My biggest fear was ending up in a wheelchair. I went to a support group meeting and a lady got up and said that she had finally realized that her worth as a human being was not determined by her ability to walk—or do any other activity,” he recalls. “It took me a long time to come to terms with that. After five years, I ended up in a wheelchair, and I am beginning to lose use of my hands. But I now realize that I have intrinsic value in God’s eyes no matter what my body can or cannot do.”

Fr. Sanford also says he has come to see the gifts that have come from his illness.

“People in the parish have stepped up to help fill the void when I could not physically do the job,” he says. “It is frustrating to not be able to get around or into people’s homes that are not wheelchair accessible. In these and many other situations others in the parish stepped up to help. I may not have been afforded the opportunity to stay in this community for 13 years had I not had this disease to contend with and for that I am thankful.”

Fr. Sanford takes over pastoral coordinator duties from Sr. Connie Schmidt SSND, who will now focus her attention full-time on pastoral ministry at Our Lady of the Sioux Church in Oglala. Charles McGaa, a Lakota, commissioned lay minister who has over 20 years of experience in pastoral ministry, has been named the parish life coordinator at Sacred Heart Church.

Shannon Grooms is a member of Our Lady of the Sioux Church. She taught Religion at Red Cloud Elementary School for four years until the birth of their oldest daughter. Shannon, her husband, and her two daughters live on a ranch nine miles north of Oglala, South Dakota.