The Arrival of the Oblates

Father Leon Fouquet

The Arrival of the Oblates

One February day in 1861, an iron war canoe travelling upstream on the Fraser River changed the course of history in the Fraser Valley forever.  The canoe carried twelve Sto:lo men, and Father Leon Fouquet, recently arrived from France  on a mission for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  The Oblates were a new Catholic order who believed that Satan was at work both in the lives of non-Christians, but also in the corrupt civilization of secular society.  Father Fouquet’s work was to save the First Nations from not only Satan, but from the violent and alcoholic excesses of the prospectors looking for gold in the nearby Caribou Gold Rush.

Looking to find a place in the middle of Sto:lo territory where he could establish a Mission School and Church, he found the perfect spot by a creek overlooking the Fraser and the mountains and  set to building the grounds which he hoped would soon be used to educate First Nations boys.

Many of the Sto:lo were happy that Father Fouquet had arrived.  Full of the best intentions, the Oblate priest genuinely wished to help the First Nations, who were often badly mistreated by the white settlers and gold prospectors. The Oblate settlement was constructed quickly, with the Oblates and the Sto:lo working alongside each other.  It included farmland, orchards, a church, several residences, and a grist mill and sawmill.  The place even included a post office, where mail would be addressed to St. Mary’s Mission.  Because there was a similarly named place in the Okanogan, the post would be addressed to Mission City.  By 1863, the boys’ school was running.  In 1868, the Sisters of Saint Ann joined the Oblates to establish a nearby sister school for girls.

Some of the Sto:lo became enthusiastic Catholics.  The rituals of the Church were in many ways similar to their own highly ceremonial spiritual gatherings.  Enthusiastically re-enacting Passion Plays depicting the Crucifixion of Christ drew crowds of thousands of First Nations people.  At this time, residential schools had not yet earned their infamous reputation, and many families wished for their children to be educated by the Oblate Fathers and willingly sent their children to the school.

The Residential School System

In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway requisitioned the Mission’s land, and St. Mary’s Mission moved uphill to their second location, in what is now Fraser River Heritage Park.  But by the 20th century, many of the school’s methods governing St. Mary’s Mission were dictated by the Federal government’s policies, which were intended to suppress all First Nations culture with the goal of assimilation.  Following the law, children were required to attend and were not allowed to see their families for a minimum of six years in the hopes that the absence would break cultural and family ties. Forbidden to speak their mother languages, children were faced with harsh punishment as a consequence if broken.

In 1961, the Oblate school was closed down, and a government-run school was erected east of the second site.  By the 1970s, the school buildings were used as a residence for First Nations students who lived too far away to attend the Mission Public Schools.  The residence was closed in 1985, making it one of the last residential schools to close in Canada.

For more information regarding the Residential School System, please explore: