In the gentle breeze and the chirping of birds, there is a sense of timelessness at the St. Joseph Mission at the Ahtanum located beside Bachelor Creek. In this park-like setting with cottonwoods, evergreens and apple trees planted in the mid-1800s, the whispers of history are all around.
At any moment, you can almost expect to see Father Louis Napoleon St. Onge, a founding “black robe” of the Mission, come walking out the door of the rustic log chapel. Or perhaps Chief Kamiakin bringing vegetables to this French Oblate priest who, in 1869, headed construction of the chapel at this site, about 12 miles southwest of the City of Yakima.
The serene setting is an important part of Northwest history, the site where Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Yakama Indians, including Chief Kamiakin, worked side by side to make irrigation canals and raise crops. The Oblates had been invited to come by Chief Kamiakin. He sought to learn and teach his people about the Catholic Faith, donating land to establish the Mission. The site was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Today, the Ahtanum Mission, as it’s known, encompasses about 12 acres, with the Diocese of Yakima still owning some 165 acres of the original 200-acre property. The setting is open for reunions, picnics, weddings and receptions, with a picnic shelter, tables and RV site. A playground includes swings, a slide, baseball field with backstop, horseshoe pits and a volleyball net.
Those interested in history also can see numerous monuments to the heritage of the mission. The major showpiece is the 16 x 24-foot chapel of hand-hewn logs with dovetailed joints, constructed in the shape of a cross. This is a replacement for the original chapel, initially called Holy Cross Mission – or Saint-Croix d’Ahtanum — which was burned in 1855 by soldiers who discovered a buried keg of gunpowder on the grounds and suspected that the priests had been providing gunpowder to the Indians, according to historical accounts.
Long before the day of power tools, the chapel construction was quite a feat. “Father St. Onge was reputedly a massive man, 6’ 4” in height and possessing unusual strength,” according to historic registry information. “His ability to lift great weights and shoulder entire timbers was a source of amazement among the Indians and whites who assisted him.”
The “new” chapel they built is still used today, for 9:30 a.m. Mass, the first Sunday of each month, in spring through fall. Seating about 100 people, it includes two antique organs and a crucifix which is believed to have been “carved from a limb of one of the ancient apple trees standing near the chapel.” A more modern statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint named by the Catholic Church, watches over the congregation from beside the altar.
Next to the chapel is a smaller log cabin or rectory thought to be the first permanent building erected by Father St. Onge in winter 1867, soon after his arrival on the Ahtanum. The building may even have been used as a temporary church. Today, the cabin is clearly showing its age. The interior, visible through a porch window, is staged with an old, wood-burning iron stove and a simple table with kerosene lamp.
Walking through the Mission grounds, you can also see the original large steeple cross from St. Joseph Church in Yakima, an old mission bell and a stone tableau depicting early scenes at the Mission. Two stone pillars honor early Indian leaders including Chiefs Owhi, Kamiakin and Ignace; plus Oblate missionaries, such as Fathers Charles Pandosy, Eugene Chirouse, Louis D’Herbomez and Pierre Durieu (who served at the Mission from 1851-1855, before Father St. Onge), all significant in the history of the Columbia River plateau.
Almost hidden on the banks of Bachelor Creek, there is a heart-shaped stone structure which may have been used as a baptismal font. Another interesting highlight is the “Catholic Ladder,” a simple, pictorial timeline designed to illustrate for the Native Americans the history of man from creation through the life of Christ and beyond. And, if you’re lucky, you might spot one of the Mission’s resident squirrels, posing congenially for photos!
Even the vegetation here has an historic element, including about a dozen Mission Heritage apple trees dating from the 1860s. These trees still produce their trademark red and yellow striped apples. The fruit is often used to bake apple pies to sell. Along the driveway into the Mission, dozens of new little trees, grafted from the originals, have been planted, to carry on the tradition.
Roget Ketcham, groundskeeper at the Mission for the past two years, says that history is one of the main drawing cards for hundreds of people who stop by the grounds each year. In some respects, the Mission is a well-kept secret among area residents, however. “It is amazing to me how many local people don’t know about it,” he said. Yet, the site seems to be growing in popularity, Ketcham noted, with numerous weddings and reunions in progress this year.
Each spring, the Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts and Troops of St. George service organizations do a cleanup of the Mission grounds, preparing for the upcoming tourist season. “It’s a heritage site which keeps the tradition of the Christian faith and the Indian culture alive,” observed Ron Gamache, chair of the Diocese of Yakima committee for the preservation and restoration of the Mission. In June, a fund drive began to help with repairs and conservation of the buildings and grounds of the Mission. Plans include everything from grading the driveway and building a protective shelter over the rectory, to upgrading the RV sites and getting new picnic tables.
“We want to preserve this regional treasure for many more generations, so that they can enjoy and share in the history of our area,” Gamache said.