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Father Pandosy: Pioneer of Faith in the Northwest

By Edmond Rivère

Review By Timothy P. Foran

June 3, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 201-02

Over the course of a ministry that spanned nearly half a century, Catholic missionary Jean-Charles Pandosy witnessed and participated in one of the most dramatic regional transformations in human history. Whereas Pandosy described his mission field as a wilderness inhabited by des sauvages in 1847, he noted four decades later that the region had sprouted towns and cities teaming with des hommes civilisés, that its landscape had been reshaped through agriculture, logging, and road construction, and that its southern and northern parts had been integrated into the American and Canadian federations — the former as the state of Washington, the latter as the province of British Columbia. Missionary involvement in this transformation has attracted scholarly attention since the publication of Vincent J. McNally’s The Lord’s Distant Vineyard in 2000, and now Edmond Rivère’s translated biography of Pandosy introduces a general readership to important aspects of this history.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of this biography is its revelation of the scope and complexity of missionary roles in the early development of Washington and British Columbia. Pandosy’s career extended far beyond the altar and the confessional: he worked variously as a farmer, an irrigator, a viticulturist, a carpenter, a teacher, a healthcare provider, a musician, a lexicographer, and an intermediary between Aboriginal groups and the American government. Yet even as he fulfilled these roles, Pandosy expressed grave misgivings about the broader colonial project to which they contributed. He alienated settlers, government officials, and even his clerical superiors by criticizing their treatment of Aboriginal people, and his identification — assumed or ascribed — with Yakama political resistance prompted a contingent of the US Army to destroy his mission and to threaten him with lynching. His life story is thus an eloquent example of missionary ambivalence toward colonialism.

To relate this life story, Rivère draws primarily on letters and reports penned by Pandosy himself. These sources provide rich insight into the missionary’s professional and personal life, and Rivère quotes them at length throughout the biography. Regrettably, he is insufficiently critical of these sources and devotes little attention to their inherent biases, assumptions, and agendas. Although this tendency does not result in hagiographical eulogizing — Rivère strives for a warts-and-all portrait — it does have the effect of perpetuating a nineteenth-century missionary discourse about Aboriginal people. Hence, Pandosy’s early converts are described as inhabiting a “no man’s land” and are noted for their “material debauchery,” their “tendency to completely neglect basic hygiene,” and their ignorance of “the well-founded principles governing the rules for maintaining good health” (28, 44, 54). Compounding this problem is the awkwardness of a text that bears telltale signs of a hurried translation from the French original, first published in 2002 — overuse of the historical present, word-for-word renderings of French idioms, and jarring references to the wisdom of “Ciceron” and the pontificate of “Leon XIII.”

Despite these serious shortcomings, Father Pandosy is a first step in introducing a general English-speaking readership to a critical chapter in the history of the Pacific Northwest. It reveals a complex colonial process through the lens of a fascinating life story.

Father Pandosy: Pioneer of Faith in the Northwest
Edmond Rivère, translated by Lorin Card
Vancouver: Midtown Press, 2012. 176 pp. $19.95 paper