In Defense of Priest Point Park

April 13th, 2022 by Ken

By David Nicandri

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  So it is with the Catholic missionaries of Priest Point. The proponents of renaming the park have honorable intentions, but, having written the history of the mission, let me speak knowingly about these men before we bury the name Priest Point Park.

It is certain that the founder of St. Joseph’s Mission in Olympia, Pascal Ricard, had many faults. He could be impatient and domineering. The most grievous was the hubris of cultural superiority, originating in the ethos of his time and civilization. This pattern was so common that Pope Francis is coming to North America this year in recognition of this Truth in the interest of Reconciliation.

Before we judge Ricard too severely, forbid that any of us should be judged for our actions by the standards of some future posterity. Nor should we be overly severe with a man who took the counter-cultural vow, then and now, of poverty, and another of obedience. For, unlike the other settlers who began to seize Indigenous land on their own volition, Ricard was sent here by a superior in his missionary order, the O. M. I., against his wishes.  Nor was Priest Point his preferred location for a mission site. He wanted to build in the already developed environs of Fort Nisqually, but his request was denied by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

And so, arriving from France, without resources or knowledge of English, this outsider sensibly chose to locate at the only other settlement on the shores of the Salish Sea to which he had been sent. Unlike his contemporaries who came via the Oregon Trail, Ricard was mindful of the colonial nature of making a claim of land owned by others. He refused to take an additional 320 acres that his “Donation Land Claim” might have entailed, writing that he didn’t want to compromise his reputation by appearing greedy for a mere “corner of land.” The announcement for this meeting notes that the missionaries occupied Priest Point for only 12 years, implying that such a transitory footprint warrants the diminution of their memory. But what of their contemporaries who lived upon this land for decades? How many parks or streets are named after them? Indeed, are not most of us beneficiaries of this legacy of this dispossession?

Ricard and the handful of priests and lay brothers who served sister missions north and east of Olympia were so poor in their first years they relied upon the charity of Indigenous people. They attempted to reciprocate. Ricard built shelters for the families of the youth attending the mission school. He became an advocate for a victimized people. Ricard scolded Isaac Stevens about the mistreatment of Indigenous prisoners, at a time when few others dared in their defense. Before Leschi was executed, his last consolation came in the person of Ricard’s colleague, Father Casimir Chirouse. Ricard scorned the corruption of settler society and its excesses in dealing with Indigenous people. He labeled the perpetrators “wolves.” He called out one of Stevens’s more odious Indian Agents as a “provocateur.” After receiving a report from Father Charles Pandosy, who was trying to mediate a peace in the Yakama Valley, Ricard tried to warn-off Stevens from his treaty tour in eastern Washington, citing the great state of agitation among the tribes there. The cause of belligerency, he maintained, was white malfeasance not indigenous iniquity. After war inevitably broke out, Ricard ridiculed Stevens’s invocation of martial law.

The reward that Ricard received for these efforts was repudiation. Because they lived among Indigenous people, the missionaries became suspect as fomenters of rebellion. Ricard was threatened with lynching in the streets of Olympia. Pandosy’s mission in the Yakama Valley was burned by members of Stevens’s militia.

All this, after nearly a decade of constructive engagement with settler civil society. Using resources provided by his order for the self-sustenance of operations in the Pacific Northwest, Ricard constructed two buildings near Swantown and rented them out for much-needed housing and government offices. He essentially gave away a part of his DLC so a steam sawmill could be built for a community desperate for lumber when the water-powered mills in Tumwater were closed because of a legal dispute. The O. M. I. had one of the only two orchards in Olympia proper, and both fruit and produce from the mission garden was provided to the community free of charge after domestic needs were met. The missionaries went from beggars in 1848-50 to running an early version of a food bank half a decade later. Brother George Blanchet signed a petition asking Congress to vacate an order from the federal land office voiding Edmund Sylvester’s DLC because he sold off a portion of it before it was officially surveyed. Ricard was one of `17 investors who provided donated capital for the start-up of Olympia’s first newspaper, The Columbian. The publisher’s records show that many prominent people failed to follow through with the promised underwriting.  Ricard honored his pledge in full.

Ricard and the other priests were men in the middle; a dangerous place in times of extremity. They were compromised in the eyes of the territory’s tribes because government officials used them as translators, having been co-opted unwittingly. Conversely, a fearful settler society saw them as overly friendly and faithful to the Indigenous. Worse came in their place. Should we miss the passing of their memory?

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