Catholics praying to St. Francis of Assisi can now contact him by e-mail.
The 13th-century Catholic patron saint of animals and ecology leapt into cyberspace last month on the initiative of a priest at Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is nine miles south of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation.
The Rev. David Gaa, the Franciscan pastor at San Xavier, decided that an e-mail address for the mission's revered, carved, wooden St. Francis icon would help Catholics who can't make it out to the world-famous mission to pray and give thanks in person.
Once a week, outreach coordinator Eileen Preston checks the saint's computer in-box and prints out the messages of prayer and thanksgiving. Then, either Preston or Gaa places the e-mail messages underneath St. Francis' pillow inside the mission, where his wooden likeness lies supine with his body draped in a cloth. A statue of Jesus is behind him.
The saintly e-mail program so far has garnered just a handful of prayers each week, but Preston and Gaa predict the volume will increase as people find out about it. Gaa will announce it to mission parishioners this weekend.
The cloth draping over the wooden icon has notes of prayer pinned to it, as well as tiny "milagro" medals that Catholics use to request prayers of intercession from St. Francis for health for themselves or family members. One woman recently pinned a sonogram of her fetus to the saint's cloth cover.
"It does work. I tried it out," Preston said, though she wouldn't reveal her message to the saint.
The messages are for St. Francis and they are personal, she said, stressing that she and Gaa respect the senders' privacy and do not read the e-mails.
The concept of cyberprayer isn't unprecedented. There was a time when people could e-mail prayers to Jerusalem and someone would put them in the cracks at the Wailing Wall, said Scott Thumma, a faculty associate at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
"Many religious Web sites have ways to e-mail prayer requests. And, of course, the television evangelists used to ask viewers to place their hands on their TV sets to receive a blessing," Thumma said. "This just proves that technology has changed many of the ways religion is being done, but theologically I still doubt that God is like the Tooth Fairy, replacing prayers under a pillow with wishes come true."
Fred Allison, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, concurred, stressing that prayers to saints ask the saint to intercede with God on behalf of the person making the prayer. The prayers are not a way to get random wishes granted, he said. The heart and intention of the person making the prayer matters - it's not a passive act, he said.
He praised the e-mail prayers, calling the concept a "digital sacramental."
"In the Catholic faith tradition, we call things that help us connect to God sacramentals - things like incense and statues. This is the first digital sacramental I've heard about," he said. "It's a wonderful way to connect people to the history and traditions of the mission."
Getting an e-mail account for St. Francis was also a matter of efficiency for the mission, which is often referred to as the White Dove of the Desert and attracts visitors from around the world.
Slightly over a year ago, the mission hired Preston, a parishioner and resident of the Tohono O'odham village of San Xavier, to help handle an increasing volume of mail and phone prayer requests. Gaa said the mission answers every piece of mail it receives. The 205-year-old mission gets at least one letter every day - more near holy days - with prayer requests for St. Francis' intercession.
The saint's e-mail address is accessed from a Web site that Gaa and other mission staff members developed this summer, explaining the history and many facets of the mission, including the San Xavier Mission school, the restoration project and the Franciscan brothers who live and work there.
"The schoolkids I told said, 'Cool, you can e-mail a saint,' " Gaa said. "We have had mixed reactions from other people. But we had been wanting to use the Internet as a way of evangelizing and reaching out to people. Some people see it as unnecessary. It all depends on how you view technology."
Art Bailey, a Tohono O'odham tribal member who sells candles at the mission, said he won't be e-mailing any prayers because he doesn't have a computer. But likes the idea, and a lot of visitors already have been asking about it, he said.
"If it makes people feel good, then it's good," he said. "Once the word gets out, they'll be getting a lot of hits. People walk into this church from all over the world, and some of them cry. They really feel its spirituality."
Jeannette Leroux, an 81-year-old Tucson Catholic who visited the mission this week, called the e-mail prayers a "fine idea."
"A lot of people can't get out. My husband had Parkinson's, and he would have loved to e-mail a prayer," she said.
But Rocky Propst, an 84-year-old resident of Sun City who also visited the mission this week, doesn't like the idea at all.
"If I want to say my prayers, I kneel down, not use a computer."
The flood of mail is high right now because St. Francis' feast day is Oct. 4.
Today a group of O'odham parishioners will move the mission's St. Francis icon from the west chapel to a special "place of honor" in front of the altar, where it will stay for the next eight days until it is carried through San Xavier on the feast day, Gaa explained.
The statue, which many believe to be a miraculous icon responsible for curing ills, is thought by many O'odham to have come from Magdalena de Kino in Mexico. Bailey, the candle seller, says many elderly tribal members tell of a St. Francis statue acquired by the Mexican O'odham at the turn of the century when the Mexican government was persecuting Catholics.
St. Francis of Assisi is the founder of the Franciscan order of religious brothers who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. But St. Francis is referred to only as "The Saint" on the Web site, www.sanxaviermission.org, because for northern Mexicans and Southwestern Americans, he is inextricably linked with another saint - St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary known as the patron saint of the mission, so named by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who put down the foundations for the mission in 1700.
Inside the mission chapel, a statue of St. Francis Xavier, standing up and wearing a white robe, is behind the altar.
"People confuse the St. Francises and roll them all into one," Gaa said. "The devotion is what's important."
During the days leading up to feast day, dozens of Tohono O'odham will make a pilgrimage to Magdalena de Kino, in northern Sonora, for the centuries-old Fiesta de San Francisco. While the festival is an acknowledgement of St. Francis of Assisi's feast day, it is the statue of St. Francis Xavier that draws crowds to Magdalena each year.