St. Mary’s Mission: ‘This place is the Devil’

Non-Native teacher remembers her unsettling year at a Catholic Indian boarding school

By: - October 14, 2021 5:30 am

Jodine Grundy in her Cincinnati, OH studio in September 2021. Grundy taught at St. Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School on the Colville reservation from 1966-67 until bad dreams and feelings caused her to resign. She has kept the photo behind her of an unknown Indigenous man since her days at the school. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today)

It was a lifetime ago, more than 50 years now, that Jodine Grundy taught at the St. Mary’s Mission boarding school on Confederated Tribes lands in Omak, Washington.

It was 1966. Grundy was 20, an idealistic, newly minted graduate from the Jesuit’s Santa Clara University in California interested in art and social justice. Energized by the church’s involvement in civil rights issues, she jumped at a priest’s invitation to teach at the remote boarding school as a means to live out her Catholic faith and help improve the world.

This story was originally published in Indian Country Today. It is republished here with permission.

It was a romantic adventure that turned sour in less than a year, forever tainting her relationship with the tenets of Catholic mission work. Today, decades later, vague misgivings and a sense of half-hidden evil linger on, resistant to time.

Did she serve a higher calling, even during her brief time at the school? Or had she been duped into accepting a narrative that didn’t exist? She’s still trying to answer those questions. But she agreed to talk with Indian Country Today about her experiences as a non-Native teacher in an Indian boarding school to shine a light on her half-forgotten memories regardless of what she might find.

“What is important to me is the verification of what actually happened,” she said.

A new perspective

The nagging uncertainties grew after Grundy received a letter in 2018 from the Jesuits West Province of the Society of Jesus informing her of credible claims of sexual abuse of minors by clergy stationed at churches and schools in the California and Oregon Jesuit provinces. St. Mary’s was a part of the Oregon province.

Former teacher Jodine Grundy, who taught art and other subjects at St. Mary’s Mission boarding school on the Colville Reservation in Washington state, still has some of her students’ paintings and essays. Grundy taught at the school in 1966-67 but left abruptly after being disillusioned by the system. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today)

One name in the letter immediately stood out: Joseph Obersinner, the priest with the magnetic personality who took her under wing at St. Mary’s.

Grundy had admired Obersinner. The gregarious priest seemed genuinely passionate about preserving the Indigenous students’ culture and language. He sometimes took her along when he visited homes on the tribal lands.

Could he really have abused the children? she wondered. A self-described “cradle Catholic,” Grundy was raised to trust the clergy. For a time, she even considered becoming a nun.

“I was Catholic all the way, Catholic elementary, high school and college,” she said.

Recalling that Obersinner had died in 2018, and emotionally unprepared to dig further into the unpleasant findings, Grundy put the letter aside. She returned to the comfort of her carefully curated and orderly retirement life in a spacious high-rise apartment. Here she could gaze down at the tree-covered city or out into an endless sky.

But then the news hit of discoveries of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, and she was shocked to the core. Grundy began to re-examine her memories of St. Mary’s. Were they accurate or had she created a more-palatable narrative?

A lot has transpired since she abruptly fled the school in 1967 to live in a commune in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Her remarkable life has been filled with marriage, social justice work among California farm workers, children, farming and organizing local farm markets, a second degree and career in psychotherapy, a heart attack and grandchildren.

It was all a long time ago but there’s something about those months at St. Mary’s that won’t leave her alone.

Remembering the children

Although her time teaching art and other classes in the long, thin building on the school’s campus was short, she still thinks of it. Clearly uncertain about her tenure there, unwilling to entirely believe the terrible allegations against Obersinner, she clings to her positive memories of the children.

She had long, red hair in those days.

“The kids were all over me, touching and braiding my hair,” she said. “I loved being with them and they loved being with me.”

That red hair has now turned wispy white. Cut in a tidy bob, it frames her sharp, blue eyes as she spreads the contents of a file folder out onto her coffee table. The folder holds drawings, paintings and written essays on construction paper created by her students at St. Mary’s.

She’s saved them all these years as a touchstone, a reminder of the children she loved.

There was one girl — a large, outgoing girl who was held back several grades due to her “failure to progress” — who described a fantasy world of clowns in an essay written in a small, tortured script.

“(She) really struggled with school, but she wanted to please me,” Grundy said.

Abandoning the school’s curriculum, Grundy encouraged the children to express themselves.

“I had an entire wall covered with pictures from current magazines,” she said. “My class was a lively, open place; it was a good place for them.”

A painting by one of Jodine Grundy’s students at St. Mary’s Indian Boarding School on the Colville reservation, Grundy taught at the school from 1966-67 and kept some of the paintings and essays her students left behind in her classroom. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today)

Another of her students, Charlie Marchand, kept his artwork, but she often thinks of the boy. Obviously a gifted artist, she wonders what became of him. She left him all her art supplies when she departed.

Grundy recalls the beautiful, rugged landscape and clear, blue sky, collecting apples in a nearby orchard with the children, and watching with a combination of delight and fear as they jumped from high cliffs into the Okanagon River. She loved their exuberance over basketball and dancing on Friday nights to a jukebox in the gym.

“They were crazy over basketball and they were good,” she said.

She remembers the aching generosity of the people, the time she was measured for moccasins during one of her excursions with Obersinner and the way women hung their babies in handmade cradle boards along the back wall of the church.

Although she was saddened to know the children were removed from their families, she told herself they were better off at the mission. Obersinner and others at the school told her the students came from dysfunctional living conditions, with a lot of abuse and alcoholism in their homes. She believed them.

At least, she reasoned, they were fed and received an education. Every day began with the same breakfast for the children — a bowl of oatmeal, a cup of milk and a single apple.

Many of the children, however, were filled with rage, she found. Sometimes they ran away or acted out; there were times they were taken away by Obersinner for discipline. She assumed their anger came from toxic home lives.

“I never witnessed any abuse,” Grundy said. “But then I was 100 percent busy with the students. I taught art, remedial reading and writing, and even religion.”

But as time went on, she grew uneasy over the school’s mission.

“My sense grew that the whole thing was rotten,” she said. “It was an impossible journey for these kids. They were being systematically removed from their culture by this education and Christianization.”

Trying to process her sense of unease, she wrote to fellow students at Santa Clara. What was going on at St. Mary’s flew in the face of the vision she and her friends had of Catholic social justice. It was months before the summer of love in 1967, and her boyfriend and college friends were preparing to join the 100,000 young people who converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to create a new society, rejecting consumerist values and the war in Vietnam.

But there was something else wrong at the school, something she couldn’t identify. It was the dream that confirmed her misgivings and convinced her to leave.

Even now, the dream is vivid, she said.

“I’m a strong dreamer; I remember dreams from my childhood,” she said. “There was this incredible blackness. It was like a huge, black wave coming off Osoyoos Lake, a black moving thing coming over me, over this mission. And then a message, ‘This place is the Devil.’”

She told school administrators she was leaving in the middle of the Spring term, and strangely, they failed to question her decision or the reasons behind it.

She remembers one other thing, too. Obersinner suddenly went missing, re-assigned elsewhere after being at St. Mary’s for several years. Staff wasn’t given any explanation for his departure.

“Maybe they were afraid I’d seen something,” she said. “I don’t know.”

Art and essays

Indian Country Today reached out to Grundy’s former students via social media at her request.

A handful responded. Others who answered were family members of students who had already died. Most asked to have their loved ones’ artwork sent to them and declined to be interviewed. Grundy is arranging to mail the artwork and essays to those who request it.

The younger sister of the girl who wrote about clowns agreed to speak with Grundy via Zoom. But the younger sister asked that neither her name nor her sister’s be included in the story. The elder sister died a few years ago but not before taking part in a lawsuit against the Oregon diocese over abuse she suffered at St. Mary’s.

Boys pray before bedtime with Father Keyes at St. Mary’s Mission boarding school in Omak, Washington. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture)

The younger sister also attended St. Mary’s in the 1970s, before it was taken over by the Colville Confederated Tribes and renamed Paschal Sherman Indian School in 1973. She has good memories of her time there as a teen. Many people in Colville liked Father Obersinner, she said.

Former St. Mary’s student Kate Sanchez remembers things differently. Although she said Obersinner frequently protected her from sexual abuse by another priest, John Morse, also named in the Jesuit’s list, her friends reported that Obersinner sometimes fondled them. Morse died in 2015. Sanchez, of the Coville tribe, has no memories of Grundy.

Sanchez also participated in the lawsuit against St. Mary’s. She was placed at the mission by local child welfare authorities at age 5 and remained there until she graduated from 8th grade. Hunger is among her most vivid memories during her time at the school.

“I hated picking up those windfall apples, (but) sometimes that was the only food we got,” she said. “Everything else was donated. We had rice and a cup of milk every day for breakfast except Sundays, when we got cereal.”

Thankfully, she recalls, a local dairy donated milk to fill the morning cups.

The staff at the school ate much better food than the students, according to Sanchez. “They would deny us dinner as punishment,” she said.

Sanchez recalls sneaking into the kitchen one night to steal bread and stumbling across one of the prefects raping a classmate.

“I remember sleeping under the bed at night so Morse wouldn’t find me,” she said. “Some of the kids just walked around like zombies because of the abuse.”

For a long time, Sanchez didn’t think she had the right to live and attempted suicide several times as a child and an adult.

“We never talked to each other about the abuse, and it wasn’t something we could take to our parents,” she said. “They wouldn’t have believed us anyway.”

The priests targeted children who were sent by a court to the mission, she said.

They picked on the ones whose parents weren’t involved at the school. I think they figured that those of us in foster care were lost anyway. They seemed to know our families wouldn’t say anything.

– Kate Sanchez, former St. Mary's student

Sanchez now follows her traditional Colville spirituality, and she encourages Grundy to offer up her pain to the Creator.

Today I know where my heart and religion is,” she said. “Part of my healing is forgiving myself and those who hurt me.”

Michael Hall, of the Colville tribe, shared some of his memories about those days.

Hall’s name is printed on one of the paintings saved by Grundy. Although he attended St. Mary’s during her tenure, he doesn’t remember her. It could be, too, that an elder Mike Hall created the painting.

“There were at least two Mike Halls at the school,” he said.

But Hall remembers Obersinner.

“He was strict and mean,” he said. “He kept a variety of spanking paraphernalia in his office …There was a lot of abuse there, both physical and mental.”

Many parents, however, felt it was their best option, he said.

“Some parents couldn’t afford to send their kids to public school,” Hall said. “At St. Mary’s, they got three meals a day and a place to sleep. And they learned about Christ, how to turn the other cheek, even if that cheek was red.”

Legal settlement

Obersinner was finally removed from St. Mary’s in 1971 but returned in 1982 to serve in the mission church, according to records provided by the Jesuits.

By 2010, he was living at the Cardinal Bea House at Gonzaga University, a private Catholic university in Spokane, Washington, according to a 2018 story in Seattle Weekly. According to an investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Cardinal Bea House served as a retirement home for at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of sexual abuse in Alaska Native villages and tribal lands across the Northwest.

By the early 2000s, hundreds of lawsuits had been filed against the Oregon province naming scores of sexually abusive priests predominately in Native communities in Alaska, Washington and Oregon.

In 2011, after the province declared bankruptcy, about 500 victims, including 16 who attended St. Mary’s Mission in Washington, settled with the Oregon province for $166 million.

In 2017, the Jesuits West Province of the Society of Jesus took over both the Oregon and California provinces with churches and missions in Arizona, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

As part of the settlement agreement, Jesuits West sent letters in 2018 to everyone who worked at or attended one of the churches or schools at the former California and Oregon provinces, notifying them of the settlement and including a list of all those who were charged with crimes or had credible claims of abuse against them.

The list included the names of 141 priests and clergy, some of whom are now deceased. Eighteen of those on the list were assigned to St. Mary’s from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

According to a 2019 story in the Tribal Tribune, a newspaper owned by the Confederated Tribes, the tribe’s business council approved an effort to prepare litigation against responsible federal agencies for childhood trauma and abuse suffered by tribal membership at St. Mary’s Mission school.

Tribal leadership did not respond to Indian Country Today’s request for comment.

“I was really angry when people first began talking about the abuse at St. Mary’s; I told them, ‘You’re not supposed to talk about this’,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez has since realized that the abuse she suffered at St. Mary’s is part of her story. “It took years of intense counseling for me to believe I had a right to live,” she said.

Although now retired, Sanchez went to college and got her bachelor’s in social work, working for the tribe and the county public health department.

“Creator gave me this experience in order for me to understand the hurt others are facing,” she said.

‘What do I do?’

Grundy is continuing to learn about her days at St. Mary’s.

She recently reached out to Virgil “Smoker” Marchand, the younger brother of Charles Marchand, her talented student. She learned that Charles went on to pursue his art, attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Although Charles died a few years ago, he greatly influenced Smoker Marchand, who is a successful, well-known sculptor.

Smoker Marchand declined to speak with Grundy on the phone, but responded to her in texts.

“My brother was an amazing artist; I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” he wrote, according to Grundy. “My memories of that place (St. Marys) are very dark and terrible; I don’t really want to talk about it.”

Known for his massive steel sculptures integrating symbols from his Colville heritage, Marchand has also created works referencing his own experience as a student at St. Mary’s.

To me it was like a concentration camp. They took me from someone I loved and tried to take the Indian out of me.

– Charles Marchand in Methow Arts

Marchand reported that he ran away from the mission five times.

In 2017, he was selected by the Sylix Okanagan Nation of British Columbia, Canada, to create a monument to recognize Syilx attendees at Indian residential schools.

In 2020, Marchand was selected for the First People’s Fund Community Spirit Award. An article in the Grand Coulee Star announcing the award noted that he recently finished a 400-piece eagle sculpture, “Bringing Our Kids Home,” that includes the names of children who attended residential schools engraved on the eagle’s wings.

Marchand did not respond to interview requests from Indian Country Today.

Jodine Grundy reads stories written by her students in 1966-67 when she taught at St. Mary’s Mission Catholic boarding school on the Colville reservation in Washington state. She is shown here in her Cincinnati, Ohio, apartment in September 2021. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today)

Although no longer a practicing Catholic, Grundy is now rethinking and recalibrating her experience at the school and the mission of the Jesuits she so loved and respected.

“What do I do with this new knowledge?” she asked.

Grundy is glad that the Jesuits are coming forward and admitting the abuse happened, even if they were forced to do so.

“It’s kind of cold comfort, I guess,” she said. “Ultimately I feel betrayed and abused by everything I was brought up in.”

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Mary Annette Pember, ICT
Mary Annette Pember, ICT

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.