The Sisters of St. Joseph first occupied Fort Yuma in 1886. It was the Indian Chief who asked for teachers, and it was natural that the same congregation of Sisters at near-by Sacred Heart School in the city of Yuma would be asked to undertake the work.
Little understanding the sobriety of religious Sisters, the chief promised not to punish them with forty lashes as he did the Indians when they got drunk. With such inducements the Sisters took over the school but with some hesitation as they were not sure of what government control would entail.
"A detachment of soldiers met the Sisters while the Indians had planned a colorful festival in their honor. Once (the Sisters were) established in the fort, the soldiers took their leave."
The fort comprised several large buildings and a number of smaller (ones) of perhaps two or three rooms. These latter which had been officers' quarters were converted into apartments for the Sisters."
"They were solidly built, but with little eye for comfort, ventilation being at a premium. As it was customary in warmer weather to leave the doors ajar to capture what little breeze might be abroad, there might be most anything in one's bedroom by morning."
What arrived at the door of the Sisters' bedroom or in the yard was usually some of the Indians' vagrant cattle or mules which wandered about most freely, causing considerable consternation to the sleeping nuns.
It took a while for the Indians to accept the Sisters, "especially the children who would run like hares if looked at the wrong way." Among other things which bothered the Sisters was the Indians' custom of going unclothed or dressed in "Adam's fashion " as the Sisters described it. The summer heat did not encourage the Indians to wear clothing and they considered their long hair as covering enough. Those who did accept some of the bright, new clothing the Sisters gave them did not put it on, however, unless they saw the Sisters coming.
One of the Indians, a man of three hundred pounds, finally accepted some clothing from the Sisters, but gave no indication of wearing it. Great was the Sisters' surprise, at having him arrive one day wearing pants, a pongee shirt, and a green bandana on his head. With him, under his arm, he carried a trunk. The Sisters praised him for the civilized venture, however, the following day he had again reverted to his unclothed state. When asked why he was no longer wearing his wonderful pants, and pongee shirt, he replied, "Well, what did I buy the trunk for?"
In 1893, Sister Thomas was missioned to the government school and was given a large class of boys to teach. Although the children preferred to run wild there was not much truancy as the old chief visited the classrooms to check on the children to see if they attended regularly, and would personally round up those who were attempting to evade being educated.
One day the Sisters were called to attend an old man who was dying. He appeared near death and wished "to embrace the faith in which his wife had died, that his spirit might rejoin hers in death. Would God take him? After a few instructions, he was baptized."
When the Sisters visited the next day they found him still alive but refusing to eat because his relatives were harassing him for accepting the faith where in heaven he would be with all Americans. The convert, however, replied that he would be happy there as the Sisters and Priests were his friends. On his deathbed he entrusted the care of his two children to Sister Thomas.
Sister Barbara dispensed medicines to the Indians and attended to minor injuries. The job didn't end with nightfall, and so it was on one night while Sister was sleeping out in the open courtyard, that she was aroused by an Indian man shaking her toe and asking medicine for his sick boy. Sister assured him that she would take care of the matter immediately, and gathering a sheet around her she hurried into the house.
In 1897 an epidemic of black measles ran rampant among the Indians and they came in great numbers to the mission where the Sisters nursed them and took care of their needs. A few were saved, but the loss of life was great at the mission and on the reservation.
The Yuma Indians cremated their dead and it was customary to burn all the deceased person's possessions along with the corpse. When an Indian was near death the family prepared for the cremation by digging a trench and laying beams crosswise in the bottom forming a sort of latticework. The carefully dressed body was placed on these beams. "All the while the Indians kept up an incessant howling which began with the death and continued for hours afterwards. One man was appointed to converse with the departed spirit. The sight of one cremation left a lasting impression, for few of the Sisters cared to attend another."
The Sisters stayed at the fort until government policy forced them out in 1900. The struggle to maintain the school and attend to needs of the Indians had been a difficult one, as they had to fight prejudice and the hostility of a small group of the Indians. They had foreseen some of these difficulties: but had willingly undertaken the work with courage and joyful hearts.
Information about the Sisters' work at Fort Yuma taken from an account by Sister Thomas Lavin.