History, Truth and Reconciliation
In 1956, John Fergus O'Grady, O.M.I., was ordained Bishop and appointed Vicar Apostolic of Prince Rupert by Pope Pius XII. Our diocese was still a missionary territory at the time and only had four Catholic schools in northern BC. Bishop O'Grady valued Catholic education and he realized there was a need for more schools.
In four years the number of schools increased to thirteen; St. Joseph’s School amongst them. Fundraising was organized by the Catholic Men’s Club, except for a federal grant of $124, 000. The building of the school began in 1958 on two lots on First Avenue. Floyd Laughlin was asked to clear the land under the government’s permission (clearing the wrong land first). Fr. John Callaly, the parish priest, organized workers to build it, while Bishop O’Grady sent some materials from Prince George. Tim McTague did the plumbing and steam fitting for the heat and John Stroet did the concrete sidewalk in front of the school. Other volunteer men from the Men’s Club helped to build the rest of the structure.
The school opened in the summer of 1959. At this time the school consisted of one long hallway with eight classrooms, office, library, and gym. The parish priest lived in what is now the office and because the church had not yet been built, weekend mass was held in the gym and weekday mass was held in the chapel which is the present day kindergarten room.
In addition to the building of the school, a new convent (currently the rectory) was built for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, from eastern Canada. Six sisters arrived to begin the school year along with one lay teacher as part of the movement known as the Frontier Apostles. This movement, begun by Bishop O’Grady to help build and run schools, continued into the early 90’s. Many of the FA’s that taught in the school settled down in the Smithers area and still have close ties to St. Joseph’s School and parish.
With the opening of the school came new challenges: how to cover the cost of running a school? The government did not financially support independent schools, but did provide text books. The tuition at that time was $7 per child or $15 per family per month. This, along with parish support, and FA stipends of only $20 to $30 a month covered the school financially.
When the school first opened, there were about 200 students, many from Witset. The school remained unchanged until 1966 with the building of two new classrooms and the hallway leading to the French room which housed showers, a nurse’s station, a classroom, and two washrooms. There were 315 students from kindergarten to grade 8. At one time, the school housed students to grade 10.
In 1976, an agreement with the town was made and the street in front of the school was blocked off and the existing playground was set up. The town and school had access to the new playground and ball field. In 1982 a long hallway with two classrooms and washrooms were built on the north side of the main building. Since that time, we have renovated the computer room and library, extended the French/music room and created more gym storage.
Truth and Reconciliation
As part of the Diocese of Prince George, we share and stand by the words of Bishop Stephen Jensen who says in his 15 June 2021, "It was certainly wrong of the Church to cooperate in policies that aimed to deny native children their language and culture and destroyed their family life. Even worse, members of the Church committed abuse on innocent children entrusted to their care, which was an assault on the human dignity of these students. These crimes were a betrayal of the faith and the religious vows of the perpetrators...In the hope of contributing to that [reconciliation and healing], on behalf of the diocese I add my own sincere regret and apology to those who suffered and continue to suffer the effects of the residential schools and ask their forgiveness for our failures."
Going forward along with the bishop we and "The diocese remains committed to the path of reconciliation with those who have suffered and to a continuing dialogue with First Nations’ leadership". We are committment to truth, reconcillation and authentic Indigenous education.
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