If you wanted to design someone who would be outraged at the prospect of renaming Priest Point Park, you could do much worse than me.
Priest Point Park is probably (outside state-owned parks around the capitol) the jewel of Olympia's park system. More than 300 acres, featuring everything (except athletic fields) you'd want in a park, built first in 1905, it is big, it is old and everyone has been there. Now, the city council is reconsidering renaming it Squaxin Park.
I was born in Olympia. I've lived other places, but this is the place I've always considered home. I have a deeper emotional attachment to this place and the things that are here than anywhere else. And, for people who know me, that is an understatement.
I am also a cradle Catholic. I was raised in Olympia's Catholic community. I went to school at St. Michael's and church there every week for a good portion of my life. I was also born at St. Peter's, but I doubt very much in the 1970s that the Sisters of Providence was what brought my parents to that particular hospital. It was the only game in town. I should also mention that while I was raised Catholic, and I have a latent respect for the faith, I walked away from it in the winter of 2009. But even then, it isn't as if I have a axe to grind against Catholics or Catholic things.
I am also tied to here because of the things that happened here. I am very interested in the history of our community. I've written about it here at this blog and at other places.
But it is the interest in history, or rather, how my particular taste in history, that drives me to want to change the name of Priest Point Park. Simply, my interest in history is so I can help our community no understand our past, so we can make our future better.
It is important for us to have an accurate view of what happened, and give honors (like park names and statues) to things that matter, not just whatever we chose back in the day. We are allowed to review our past choices and then move on in a different direction.
But, here are a few good reasons for us to move on.
- The Oblate Priests of Mary Immaculate at Priest Point Park were only at Priest Point for 12 years. They showed up in 1848 and then moved on 1860. And, most importantly, they did not have any sort of direct connection to Catholic institutions that came later. St. Martin's College, St. Peter's Hospital, Sacred Heart and St. Michael's were all founded decades later by non-Oblate members of the Church. To draw any connection between Oblate priests travelling west and other Catholic institutions is casual.
- There is already another Priest Point on Puget Sound. Not just in the world, but very nearby here just north of Everett. And the northern one is an actual populated place, which probably makes it more significant. Seems dumb to have two. And if we want to change ours first, then good.
- The most important thing the Oblate priests did do is to act as a relay between the tribal communities in the South Sound and the white community during the Puget Sound War. The Puget Sound War was the conflict between the federal and territorial governments immediately following the Steven's Treaties. The Oblate priests had spent a lot of effort trying to convert some of those Indians to Catholicism, so knew people on both sides of the conflict. But even this occurrence points us to the Squaxin Island Tribe, because we need to remember we were at war with them and we turned their namesake island into a prisoner camp.
- Worse, Priest Point Park was where we imprisoned the tribal members who lived around Olympia before we moved them to Squaxin Island. Not a prison camp per se, but on the way to one.
- The entire logic behind sending missionaries to the west wasn't to serve Catholics that had moved there, but to convert tribal members who had another religions already to Catholicism. Despite what Catholic historians will lay down later, an attempt at religious colonialism. Continuing to honor that portion of our history, especially given the rest of the context, is a weird decision. (I added this point a few hours after writing this initial post)
- The Squaxin Island Tribe asked us to. Their history runs deeper here, and their history is the one we try hard to ignore. Their history is the history we should try to pay closer attention to. The Squaxin Island tribal council passed a resolution on December 10, 2021 requesting the change.
- Lastly, the priests never asked for the honor. They were long gone by the time the city ended up buying the property from the county over a century ago.
Renaming the park doesn't take anything away from Olympia. Catholics still make up a significant portion of our community's religious adherents. The priests didn't front the money to the city in 1905 when the parcels became available from a failed housing development. That was George Mottman. Local lawyer P.M. Troy did the spade work, pulling together the title work to make sure the city got as much of the property as possible, since much of it was already split into lots. But we didn't name the park after those two men. They just went with the inherited name that locals had always called the spot.
There are 43 Salish tribes of which 23 are considered Coastal Salish, of those, four are known to have gathered for shell fish and trade at the land we called Priest Point Park. All share Linguist and ethnic roots.
Various dispersed "Shell middens" may be found which speak of the camp grounds of different tribes over centuries of use. If a name change is appropriate, then a Salish word that describes "Gathering Place" is most fitting and descriptive. After all, for centuries this has been a gathering place, and it remains so today with weddings, memorial services ,birthdays etc.
There are several reasons why the Priest left their Mission at the Point that was not mentioned in the above comments! First there was an altercation where a priest was killed, his body was buried in the chapel rose garden on the South side near the confluence of Mission Creek and the Puget Sound. The Senior Priest, Father Pascal Ricard, had been in poor health for several years and died in France shortly after his return there in 1860. Governor Stevens wife was concerned about his health and took the one mile buggy ride from Olympia to visit the Mission and to look in to his well being.
There were the Indian Wars (1847-1885) and the Whitman Massacre of 1847. Over thirty forts were built by local Militia throughout the Washington Territory; two blockhouses in Olympia, one Fort at the Nisquality river crossing and one named Fort Borst in Centralia.
With native and setter tensions high lack of funding and Mission staff diminishing, the life of the French Oblate Mary Immaculate Mission ended.
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