Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mission (formerly and formally known as ‘Mission City’), British Columbia was named after a Mission that landed here in 1861 (functional in 1863). It was named ‘St. Mary’s Mission School’.
ST. MARY’S RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL
St. Mary’s was a ‘Residential School’ for local First Nations People, opened by Father Leon Fouquet. Father Leon was a member of the O.M.I – Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – whose mandate is to ‘preach the Gospel to the poor’.
The O.M.I were considered to be ‘specialists in the most difficult missions of the Church’ by the Pope. They had missions and institutions in the Americas, Australia, Philippines and Hong Kong.
For a time the main goal of the O.M.I was to ‘naturalize’ Native Aboriginal populations.
Families were separated and held against their will, in (often) prison like settings where they were forcefully taught a new culture, language and religion – with the idea that this would make them comply more readily with colonization.
Many, in residential schools across Canada, experienced all forms of abuse at the hands of those in ‘trusted’ positions. Physical, mental and sexual abuse have all been widely reported – and St. Mary’s was not immune to its share of atrocities.
Father Leon chose the name St. Mary’s not in recognition of the Virgin Mary (as is commonly thought), but rather to honour Saint Mary of Egypt, who was ‘saved from prostitution’ and did penance in the desert – for 47 years (from heritagepark-mission.ca).
We have walked the site of the oldest part of St. Mary’s many times. It is now a scenic, beautiful park overlooking the Fraser River with a majestic lining of snow capped mountains.
Nothing but stone foundations remain of the original (first) buildings, but the obvious honouring of this difficult past is apparent everywhere throughout the park.
Memorial gardens, detailed plaques, the original cemetery and the Heritage Centre are a few ways preservation has taken form.
1. Administration Building / Park Info Centre
2. Ernest Jacobsen Rose Garden
3. Norma Kenney House / Blackberry Kitchen
4. Tennis Court : used only by the Oblate Priests and Sisters of St. Ann
5. Memorial Garden – Small Staff Residence : housed male supervisors and maintenance staff. The foundations of this building were used to create the Memorial Garden Read more…
In 1961 a new set of buildings were erected and the old, dilapidated (though once quite beautiful) ones were torn down. It was at this new set of buildings that the mistreatment of Native populations dramatically escalated.
We passed a traditional Native Medicine Wheel on our walk to the newer school buildings. A rare spiritual, healing circle created for ceremonies.
Not much is written about this particular wheel (though it must be quite old), and sadly not much care is being given to it either. Despite posted signs and various pleas – the area is being used as an off-leash park by locals.
Even getting to the site is somewhat daunting. We were charged, TWICE, by a huge black dog – one whose owner clearly had no control of it. We also had to dodge various giant dog ‘bombs’.
It is said that in the beginning of St. Mary’s existence, many ‘graduates’ reported that they had fond memories of their experiences at the school. The horror stories started filing in around 1960 when many report suffering extensive abuses.
From a distance the newer of the old residential schools (St. Mary’s site 2) looks abandoned . On further inspection, we discovered that in fact it was not.
The Oblates opened and operated a mission school in 1863 in what was to be later named Mission, British Columbia. Its aim was to bring the indigenous people – the Sto:lo – to a Christian and agrarian lifestyle. Later, the school became a federally mandated residential school named St. Mary’s and was closed in 1984, making it the last BC residential school to close. It is now operated as a cultural centre by the Sto:lo people.
1984 seems like yesterday to me – it is hard to believe that society tolerated the institution such a short time ago.
Today the site contains an active daycare, gym and various social services. We also noticed signs that the Sto:lo Peoples have plans for further cultural development. The rear parking lot was full.
And though it will never be enough, here too you can find various memorial expressions of regret, including this ‘Unity Pole’, pictured above. The plaque beside it reads;
This pole, carved by Native offenders,
is presented to the Native community
of the Fraser Valley to celebrate
the healing of the past and mark a
new era of cooperative justice.
Presented on October 15, 1992 by the
BC Corrections Branch Fraser Region
(CAPS on ‘Native’ added by me).
Many additional photos in the slideshow.
To learn more about Canada’s residential schools, including St. Mary’s in Mission BC, check out the links below.