Priscilla Taylor gasped when she saw the worn golden chalice on the thrift store shelf.
She picked it up reverently, for she knew immediately that this communion chalice had held many blessings. The births and deaths and desperately-needed miracles could be read in the worn-away gold plating all around the rim.
“It didn’t belong there,” said Taylor, a retired secretary who had raised five children and now treasures nine grandchildren and a deepening sense of both miracle and history. “I recognized the holiness of it.”
She did not know then that her chance discovery and impulsive purchase would connect her to a terrible and inspiring history, with intimate connections to heroism, the Apache nation, faith and genocide — world crushing violence and soul restoring grace. It is also the story of a Christmas blessing and a long-delayed homecoming.
As she held the worn golden cup, she was also touched by a sense of the mystery of the unexpected callings that come to those who listen. Her father was in the fabled Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, made famous by the Stephen Ambrose book “Band of Brothers” and an HBO series of the same name. Easy Company landed in Normandy on D-Day, fought its way across France, held on through the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Bastogne and liberated concentration camps.
Her father’s dress tunic had been stolen in the early 1980s from his own father’s home. More than 20 years later, her brother got a call from a man in the Netherlands who had found the tunic with George Potter’s name and serial number stitched into the collar in a warehouse full of bags of clothing ready for shredding and recycling. From that information, the man had tracked down her family and returned the tunic.
Taylor turned the chalice over carefully in her hands and then saw the engraving on the bottom — in loving tribute from the DuPuy family.
“I would have bought it just to get it off the shelf,” said Taylor, “but the engraving, made me wonder if I could trace it.”
She made an initial attempt, but could find nothing on the DuPuy family. The chalice ended up in a box as her life intervened for a year or so. But she came across it again not long ago and thought, “Oh, my, I’d best get on that again.”
So she made a determined run at the mystery on the Internet.
Before long, she came across an account of the history of the family of Sylvester Dupuy, a French immigrant who started with nothing and built up a vast ranch in California, where he made his fortune raising herds of sheep that reached some 80,000. Dupuy built a remarkable “Pyrenees Castle” on a hilltop with three-foot-thick walls. His ranch ultimately became the city of Alhambra in Southern California.
Taylor’s research revealed that Dupuy’s children had attended the Ramona Catholic school and on a hunch she managed to dig up a number for the school and called to find out if anyone knew anything about the Dupuy family.
The nun who took the call knew nothing, but agreed to get hold of a retired nun who might recall the family. That contact ultimately led to the phone number of the granddaughter of Sylvester Dupuy.
And that proved the key to revealing the astonishing story of the missing chalice.
Turns out, the family had given the chalice to Father Albert Braun, a legendary priest who spent much of his life ministering to the needs of the Mescalero Apache — but who also served as a chaplain in both World War I and World War II, during which he survived the infamous Bataan Death March.
Braun grew up on the Dupuy ranch at the turn of the century where his parents were sheep herders. After he became a priest, Braun ministered to the family — performing baptisms, marriages and ceremonies.
A Franciscan, Braun was sent to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico in 1916. The Mescalero had been struggling for decades to hold onto their ancestral lands and had also ultimately provided shelter to the Warm Springs and Chiricahua Apache, including the descendants of Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio and other warriors whose long, stubborn resistance had resulted in a 30-year exile and imprisonment.
Braun found a ramshackle adobe shack to serve as a church and an impoverished but deeply spiritual people to whom he immediately warmed.
He soon interrupted his mission there to volunteer as an Army Chaplain in the trenches of World War I. A number of his Apache friends joined him, hoping to gain U.S. citizenship in return for their service. He participated in cataclysmic battles like Meuse-Argonne, a climactic effort to break the long stalemate on the Western Front that cost 117,000 U.S. casualties and 70,000 French casualties to an estimated 120,000 German casualties. The battle would prove the most costly single battle in U.S. history.
Instead of remaining safe in the trenches, Braun charged the German defenses with the men in his company. He was soon wounded. However, he refused to return to safety. Instead, he continued to tend to the dying and wounded.
He returned to the Mescalero Reservation after the war. There, he somehow managed to build a large, stone church — using $100 in Army pay to start the building fund.
He remained with the Mescalero until 1940, when he once again volunteered to serve as an Army Chaplain on the brink of the U.S. entry into World War II. He and several Apache volunteers were dispatched to the Philippines. When that island fell in 1942, the Japanese marched some 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war roughly 60 miles. Only about 54,000 of the prisoners survived the journey.
Despite near-fatal beatings, Braun insisted on saying mass for the prisoners, finally winning grudging Japanese acceptance. He was ultimately sent to a prison camp in Japan, from which he was liberated in 1945. At that time, the 6-foot-tall priest had dwindled from 195 to 115 pounds and suffered from diphtheria, dysentery, pellagra and malaria.
After the war, the fearless priest returned to his missionary work, although he could no longer withstand the rigors of his mission among the Apache. Instead, he was posted to Phoenix where he worked with a fearful and dispossessed Hispanic community. He said to his new parishioners “bring me a brick and together we will build a church.”
Once again, the indomitable priest inspired the construction of a beautiful church for an impoverished people who had nowhere to worship.
Father Braun died in 1983. Generals, archbishops, priests and Apache elders attended his funeral. They built a statue in his honor near the church he built in Phoenix, but they buried him where his heart had always lain — with the Mescalero.
It was from the church he built in Phoenix in 1985 that someone stole the engraved golden chalice the Dupuy family had given him decades ago.
“I can’t understand how anyone could steal something from a church,” said Taylor, “but people do.”
Ironically enough, Braun’s chalice disappeared at about the same time someone stole the Easy Company tunic of Taylor’s father.
The chalice vanished from the record for almost a quarter century, until Taylor found it sitting silently on that thrift store shelf.
Its discovery seems just as unlikely and fitting as the return of Taylor’s father’s tunic, after a similar dwelling in darkness.
“I wish I knew where it has been, what it has seen, all this while,” said Taylor.
The Dupuy family was delighted with the discovery, but they knew where the chalice belonged — with Father Braun on the Mescalero Reservation.
So Taylor contacted officials on the Apache reservation in New Mexico, who were similarly happy. They said they would enshrine the chalice in a niche near the altar. They urged Taylor to send it along quickly, so they could use it once again for Christmas mass.
So the chalice will go home, charged once more with the spirit of the man who murmured the rites for the dead and blessings on the living in the trenches of World War I, on the terrible path of the death march, in a wilderness of lost hope for an abused people and in a church for the dispossessed he built with donated bricks.
“I suppose it means there’s hope for all of us who are lost,” concluded Taylor.