There is a building on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc reserve that has a remarkable history, spanning almost 175 years on the same location. But it has undergone changes that conceal the long story of its connection with the Tk’emlups people and the region.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, at the west end of Chilcotin Road, was established after the Hudson’s Bay Company had relocated its fort to the west side of the North Thompson River in 1843.
It became the nucleus of the village that grew up around it.
Although the signboard in front of the church today indicates it was originally built about 1870, part of it is actually much older. Its appearance today is how the church was reconstructed in 1900.
When the Tk’emlúps band undertook restoration of the church in the mid-1980s, the remains of a hewn log floor system was discovered within the building, possibly part of the original church erected on the site by the Secwépemc te Tk’emlúps. The first missionaries in the area were the Jesuits in 1843.
Based on other early missions they established, the first church was likely a squared-log building with a simple cross on top.
Three years after the first Jesuits visited, a mission was established at Tk’emlúps. In a letter dated June 1, 1846, Father Nobili wrote: “At the fort of the Sioushwaps, I received a visit from all the Chiefs who congratulated me on my happy arrival amongst them. They raised a great cabin to serve as a church …”
In 1858, the first Oblate missionaries came to British Columbia, now a colony, after spending 11 years prosyletizing in Oregon. Father Jean-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Félix Pandosy was founder of the Okanagan Mission (Kelowna) in 1859, which became the church’s headquarters for the Interior.
Pandosy was an itinerant priest who most certainly visited Kamloops many times, meeting Louis Clexlixqen, known as Petit Louis, the hereditary chief of Tk’emlups, after 1852.
Louis converted to Catholicism in the early 1860s and, about 1866, he became a church chief (an appointment by the Oblates). In 1871, photographer Benjamin Baltzly visited Kamloops as part of the Geological Survey’s exploration for a railway route.
He mentions in his journal that on the Tk’emlúps reserve, “they have a small log church, with mother earth for a floor and logs for seats.” Unfortunately, his well-known photo of the river junction does not clearly show the old church. By 1872 however, the itinerant Father Florimand Gendre reported that Chief Louis had raised the money to build a new church.
It was finally constructed a decade later, in 1882. In 1885, the Oblates moved their headquarters from Okanagan Mission to Kamloops, with Father Jean-Marie Le Jacq in charge.
In 1891, Father Jean-Raphael Le Jeune became the rector of St. Joseph’s Church on the Kamloops reserve. Le Jeune published the Kamloops Wawa (Talk of Kamloops), a popular newspaper, using Duployan shorthand to write Chinook jargon, with his printing press in the back room of the church.
As the congregation grew, a new church was built in 1900. In the November 1900 edition of the Wawa, Le Jeune wrote: “The old log church has been torn down, and a new frame structure put in its place. The dimensions are seventy-five feet from the front door to the bottom of the sanctuary, and there is a transept fifty feet by twenty. The walls are sixteen feet high. The windows are of the Roman style, that is circular heads, five and a half feet wide, and over nine feet high. The services of a good carpenter were secured, and the Indians helped as much as they could; at times there were more than fifty working together.”
The church was opened on the Sunday before Christmas in 1900.
In 1985, the church was completely restored and the majority of 12,265 hours of labour was contributed by Tk’emlups band members.
The bell in the tower, incorporated in the new structure, dates from the earlier church, which explains the inscription: “St. Louis Indian Reservation, Kamloops BC, Pastor Reverend Father Le Jacq, O.M.I., October 1885.” The bell was cast in New York. St. Joseph’s Church shows how a building may conceal its own history, yet reveal more than meets the eye.
Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and former curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum and Archives.