Golden Anniversary of a Missionary
St. Anne’s Catholic Indian Church on Tzouhalem Road is one of the most historic churches on Vancouver Island. Since the mid-19th Century it has been served by a long list of missionaries, priests and bishops, many of whom were Oblates (OMI). In 1973 after his ordination Frank Salmon OMI was assigned to the St. Anne mission as his first obedience, beginning a 50 year journey as missionary on Vancouver Island and later in northern British Columbia (B.C.)
On May 5, 2023 Frank returned to the old church, rebuilt after a fire in 1903, to celebrate his 50th Anniversary of ordination with a small group of family and friends. Concelebrating with him was the current pastor, Rev. Poblete, a Filipino missionary to Canada, and Rev. Ken Forster OMI who is a noviciate companion from the novice group of 1964 – 1965 in Arnprior, Ontario.
At the age of 77 Frank recently retired to live at the Oblate house in Vancouver known as “The Crescent”. Leaving historic Ft. St. James in northern B.C. there are now no Oblates in the north of the province, while for some years now there are also no Oblates on Vancouver Island.
Ken Forster spoke briefly about Frank during the mass, with humour noting some of Frank’s characteristics: his sense of time, his casual clothing (Frank doesn’t even have a formal suit), and his connection to people. Ken spoke about the difficulty the Oblates had in trying to get Frank to move as he was so deeply rooted in the two areas where he worked – the West Pacific coast of the Nuu-chat-nulth and later in the Central Interior of northern BC, the territory of the Carrier Sekani peoples. After the mass the small group travelled down the highway to St. Peter Quamichan Anglican Church which had the facilities for lunch, provided by the Salmon family and friends. Typical on the Island is the “potluck” gathering and as usual there was plenty of offerings including traditional smoked salmon. The area is traditional Kwa’mutsun territory of the Cowichan tribal nation.
Later in the day a smaller group of the family and a few friends gathered at the home built by Frank’s parents on the shore of Fuller Lake near Chemainus. Again a potluck meal provided substantial nourishment for all, with stories about Frank and the distraction provided by grand nephews and nieces. This was a family ceremony, as the Oblate community was planning to do something at “The Crescent” on Sunday to celebrate Frank’s “Golden Anniversary”.
In 2021 Frank was recognized with the “St. Joseph’s Award” by the Catholic Missions in Canada (CMIC) for his missionary work. Catholic Register – Fr. Salmon a missionary who’s always on the go Typical of Frank, he came to the presentation of the award wearing his worn jeans and a simple vest. The photo of the event shows Frank as he commonly appeared, with his bicycle behind him as he often travelled even in the winter with his bike with studded tires that he himself had fashioned for snow and ice. As well Frank is holding a drum, key instrument in First Nation’s gatherings, with a vision quest Christ mask and Frank’s given name Nasiic.
Frank and I were classmates for 7 years in Ottawa, receiving the classical formation for clergy, with scant if any formation for pastoral work and zero formation in “missiology”, the disciplined preparation in intercultural missionary work which the Oblate actually pioneered and administered at St. Paul University where we studied. The English Canadian branch of the Oblate congregation ignored the formal preparation for missionary work with the assumption that it would come in some process of osmosis. The tragic if not criminal involvement in the Indian Residential schools was in part the result and continues to haunt the Oblates in Canada to this day.
If there is something in how the stars cross and predetermined destiny, his name is a clue. Frank’s mother had in mind two great saints – Assisi and Xavier in choosing Francis. From the beginning of his mission Frank drew on the spirit of both saints and in some way was present to the people in the way later proclaimed by another Francis, now Pope. The emphasis on going out to the periphery, that the pastor must have the “smell of the sheep”, with a love of the “Pachamama” and a care of the natural world, and a style of simplicity and humility rather than arrogance and pomp, Frank would seem to be on track before the track was laid.
With “Salmon” as his surname, was he predetermined to work with a people whose lives rotated and depended on the salmon, so crucial to the balance of the west coast ecosystem in all ways? The family name had an English origin but the context of 50 years of mission with First Nations peoples whose lives were characterised by the salmon would not seem to be coincidental.
When on the west coast Frank would occasionally, when he was younger and stronger, be called to be an extra deckhand when the boats went out to fish. This was not a comfortable afternoon on the sea with a few lines off the boat but heavy work with days at sea and then the heavy work of bringing in the nets. Arriving at the village the harvest would be shared among the families, with much of the fish being dried and smoked for preservation according to traditional ways. Frank himself learned to can salmon, which he would gift to family and friends for Christmas and sometimes his own use.
I remember Frank telling of one occasion when he asked the community in Ahousat when they would like the Sunday mass. They suggested Tuesday before the boats went out to fish, so that prayers could be offered for the safety of the men. Such a flexibility with liturgical norms was not appreciated by superiors but Frank respected the will of the people.
Frank however had little use for himself, as we discovered once when staying with him overnight in Ahousat, a village north of Tofino which is the only settlement on Flores Island. There was no food in the cupboard, and only a few tea bags. Frank made himself deliberately dependent on the goodwill of the people, in a reciprocal relationship of care. Half the village was Catholic and other half United Church (UCC) with a non-resident pastor. These denomination divisions were not honoured by the people and for all Frank was their spiritual leader and pastor. Making sure not to favour any family, in the early morning Frank would walk around the village and look for a family preparing breakfast and then he would invite himself in. For all those years on the west coast Frank was their priest and the people cared for him in villages up and down the west coast.
Early in his years on the coast Frank was offered a substantial offer of financing from the Church extension society in Toronto to buy a fancy speed boat. That would enable Frank to travel quickly up the west coast to different villages getting in three or four masses on a Sunday. Frank told the Oblates to send the money back, which must have really pained the administration. It also pained the traditional way of colonial missionary presence.
In his early years Frank would kayak up the coast, pulling an olive barrel behind the kayak with the clothes and supplies he would need. After two or more days paddling Frank was in no mood to just “say mass” and then move on. He would stay for a while, to spend time with the people and learn from them. He told of how in one visit an elder woman complained how no one had come to help her with her spring garden, so Frank took the days to do that job, not only as a service to an elder but also as a statement to the younger people about caring for their elders.
Frank tried without much success to learn the language of the Nootka peoples but he was able to sit with the men in the singing of the traditional songs, accompanied by the drumming. With an elder from Alberta Frank entered into the spiritual tradition of the sweat lodge followed by the vision quest which include severe fasting. On receiving a vision the matter was not spoken of for a year and then only with a respected elder. Frank would accompany elders to the mountain when youth who were experiencing difficulties were summoned to the sweat ceremony to seek reconciliation with the community.
One of the contributions of the Oblates to the historical disrespect of Indigenous peoples and culture was support for the criminalization of the potlatch ceremony. Native people were jailed for celebrating the potlatch which missionaries and “Indian agents” saw as pagan and a hindrance to the goal of assimilation. The potlatch however became a force in the resistance to domination by the Canadian – Imperial control and officially in 1951 the Indian Act provisions outlawing the potlatch were repealed. However in practice the missionaries still opposed the potlatch.
More than 20 years of kayaking along the west coast, living with and depending upon the people for his daily bread, Frank asked permission to save from his diocesan salary for his own potlatch. He had attended many potlatches and came to understand the intrinsic purpose and community value in the ceremony. Frank would go further to explain the “sacramental” characteristic of the ceremony – based on sharing and honouring members of the community. With his savings Frank bought blankets for all families in Ahousat. The details of the celebration were taken over by different families. Not all Oblates were impressed that Frank would not only attend a potlatch but that he would have his own ceremony, but it had been approved by the provincial superior and it was no longer illegal.
Something different happened. The potlatch was a great success, a joyful celebration for the community. In the village there was one family group whose surname was “Frank”. At one point during the celebration Frank was called forth, much a surprise to himself, and he was formally adopted by a member of the Frank family. Having watched and witnessed his pastoral style for many years, not as a itinerant outsider focused on delivering religious ceremonies (sacraments), but as one immersed and inserted in the daily lives of the community, Frank was told that he was no longer a missionary to the Indians but that he was considered to be an Indian priest.
Part of the customs of the First Nations is the sacred guarding of names. At the potlatch Frank was given the name of a religious leader, pre-colonization, and the name had been guarded and preserved in the matriarchal tradition. Frank became “Nasiic” and when he dies the name goes back to the matriarchs of the community.
There was a time when the Oblates thought that Frank was becoming “too Indian” and that transition to a white parish might be too difficult. There was an attempt to have Frank removed from the Island, as he was one of the few Oblates left on the Island that was once dominated by the Oblate congregation. Frank as an Oblate was obliged under obedience to go where sent, but the elders felt differently because they now considered Frank to be their priest. The traditional elders from all the villages demanded a meeting with the bishop, Remi DeRoo (considered to be progressive) and the Oblate Provincial. Coming out of the meeting, Frank was told “You’re staying”.
Eventually Frank was sent off the Island to work out of Ft. St. James, one of the most historic locations for both the Oblates and the Hudson Bay Company. The diocese would have been happy if Frank just centred his sacramental efforts around the town but there was a string of First Nations communities, the majority of the population, along the shores of Stuart Lake. There was also good fishing and hunting and Frank was keen to participate with the community in traditional activities.
One characteristic of Frank was his attention to grieving and funerals. In his final year in “the Fort” Frank assisted at more than 80 funerals, some of young people whose deaths were caused by violence or drugs. As was his custom on the West Coast, Frank did not do the traditional Catholic prayers at the wake and then the funeral mass. Frank would attend and accompany the family and the community in their grief. One of the few times I saw Frank actually rush was when he received a phone call of a death in Gold River which meant a long drive across the Island and then north to again cross the mountains. The reciprocal relationship inherent in being an Indian priest was that he was connected and somehow related to half the Indigenous population on the Island. He was family and as family he would be there with them in their grief. Frank would sit with the family in the home all night and all day, perhaps into a third day before the community asked for the formal prayers of the church.
With 50 years of working with the First Nations Frank has learned and celebrated in an intimate way with the people. He has baptised generations, witnessed many marriages and shared the heartaches and sorrows of many families. He has learned some of the ancestral ways and wisdom. There will be no autobiography or “Memoirs” of Frank Salmon because he considers most of it to be sacred memory, not his to share. The Oblates were right, he was becoming “too Indian”, and his priorities in retirement are different.
The real poverty of the vows lies before him, not the dependence upon the people because they always did feed him and shared their food and their homes. When boating alone between the Islands the people would watch him and radio ahead his location to other families, always attentive to his safety. Now in retirement he will live at an Oblate retirement house, with his own room with a separate TV, and regular meal times.
By Phil Little