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1st Native American Bishop Dies at 64

By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Journal Staff Writer
       Bishop Donald Pelotte, who led the Diocese of Gallup for 22 years as the nation's first Native American bishop, died Thursday after he was hospitalized with an apparent stroke.
    Pelotte, 64, was admitted Dec. 27 to a critical care unit of Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and never recovered, according to the Diocese of Gallup.
    Pelotte, who resigned from the diocese in April 2008, garnered speculation both within and outside the diocese after he suffered a brain injury in July 2007 in what church officials described as a fall down stairs in his home. Based on the injuries, police and emergency personnel thought he had been attacked.
    A spokesman for the diocese said Thursday that Pelotte's death was not connected to the 2007 injury.
    The Rev. John Mittelstadt, pastor of St. Mary's Mission in Tohatchi and a longtime friend of Pelotte's, said the controversy over Pelotte's final year in the diocese did nothing to diminish his admiration among parishioners.
    "People loved him no matter what," Mittelstadt said Thursday. "They still loved him even though he resigned."
    Pelotte surpassed previous bishops in fulfilling the diocese's mission of serving Native American people of all tribes, Mittelstadt said.
    "The main purpose of this diocese is Native American people," he said. "I think (Pelotte) really helped bring that about. He really helped us to acculturate the Catholic ways with the Native American."
    Pelotte, whose father was a member of the Abenaki tribe of Maine, tolerated Native American ceremonies in Roman Catholic services to an extent that would have been unthinkable under previous bishops, Mittelstadt said.
    "It wasn't the Great White Father thing," he said. "It was (Pelotte's) Native American understanding. He got laity involved in the church and in ministries. He had a respect for the medicine men and medicine women of all tribes."
    Pelotte established a program called "Builders of the New Earth" to teach Navajo laity to serve as ministers, Mittelstadt said. Today, Navajo lay ministers are central to the diocese, he said. St. Mary's Mission has two Navajo deacons ordained by Pelotte.
    Pelotte was hospitalized for a stroke and remained in a coma in the days before his death, Mittelstadt said. A Maine native, Pelotte was ordained as a priest in 1972.
    In 1990, Pope John Paul II tapped Pelotte as the third bishop of the Diocese of Gallup, a 55,000-square-mile diocese that encompasses the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and Arizona.
    He replaced Bishop Jerome Hastrich. Pelotte had served as coadjutor bishop of the diocese since 1986.
    At his ordination, parishioners gave Pelotte a feathered bonnet that he wore during a portion of the installation ceremony, Mittelstadt recalled.
    "It was quite a breakthrough, the first Native American bishop," Mittelstadt said. "We were really excited about him being ordained a bishop."
    But events at the end of his tenure took some of the luster off Pelotte's career.
    He suffered severe head trauma and other injuries during an incident at his Gallup home on July 23, 2007.
    The severity of Pelotte's injuries led police and medical personnel to speculate that the then 62-year-old bishop had been attacked. But church officials insisted that he fell down a stairway.
    Pelotte received treatment in Arizona, Texas and Florida for two months. Shortly after his return to Gallup, Pelotte called police to report that intruders had entered his home and refused to leave.
    Pelotte left Gallup for further treatment in December 2007 when Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was appointed as apostolic administrator. The Vatican announced Pelotte's resignation in May 2008.
    Bishop James Wall was installed as bishop of the diocese on April 23, 2009.

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