Saturday, March 8, 2014
The Most Rev. Donald E. Pelotte spent 22 years serving the Catholic Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico before retirement.
1986 Morning Sentinel File Photo
GALLUP, N.M. — The Roman Catholic community lost a key figure Thursday with the death of the first Native American bishop to be ordained in the United States, Donald E. Pelotte. He was 64.
The bishop was born in Waterville and grew up in poverty. According to an article in the Portland Press Herald on March 6, 1986, his parents divorced when he and his twin brother were only 3 months old, and his mother raised her five sons as a single parent.
''We lived on welfare and very much depended on neighbors,'' he said in the article, adding that the house they lived in did not have plumbing and lacked adequate heating for Maine winters.
But he persevered, receiving his high school diploma from Eymard Seminary in Hyde Park, N.Y., earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy from John Carroll University in Cleveland.
He earned his doctorate in theology from Fordham University in New York in 1975.
In 1972, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward O'Leary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
At the time, he was the youngest major superior serving the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in the country.
In February 1986, he was named coadjutor bishop for the Catholic Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico.
''This is a moment that Native Americans have been waiting for many, many years,'' Pelotte said in an Associated Press article on Feb. 25, 1986.
He was ordained in a ceremony at Red Rock State Park, a natural amphitheater that accommodated more than 8,000 spectators on May 6, 1986.
An article in the Press Herald on the same date said the bishop received personal congratulations from President Ronald Reagan.
''This appointment reflects particularly great honor on you as the first Native American member of the episcopacy of your church ... The motto you have chosen for your service, 'Strengthen One Another,' is a fitting emblem of what you have already done and of the tasks that await you,'' Reagan said.
After Bishop Jerome Hastrich retired from the diocese in 1990, Pelotte assumed the full role as bishop.
During his 22 years of ministry in Gallup, his efforts focused on building the church among Native Americans.
The diocese said he developed training programs for Native American deacons and lay ministers, chaired the Western Health Foundation and fought to keep Casa San Martin open to serve the city's homeless population.
He was also a member of the Tekakwitha Conference, the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Catholic Historical Society.
He made history again in 1999 when he ordained his twin brother, the Rev. Dana Pelotte, in a ceremony in Waterville, marking the first time in known Catholic history that a bishop had done so, the diocese said.
Bishop James S. Wall, who stepped into the role of bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup when Pelotte retired in April 2008, was saddened to hear of his death.
''(He) so faithfully served the church throughout his life -- especially as the third bishop of the Diocese of Gallup, Bishop Pelotte being the first Native American bishop, had a great love for the Native American people -- and his spirit of service will continue to live on,'' Wall said in a prepared statement.
Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: