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Missionary work at Fort Yuma dates to at least 1770s
Indian Hill, which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River just across from the Yuma Territorial Prison, has long been a staging area used by Catholic missionaries to spread Christianity to the indigenous population.
According to the National Park Service, Catholicism came to Yuma in the footsteps of Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who had come to the area in the winter of 1774. Relations between Anza and Chief Palma of the Quechan, whose indigenous name was Olleycotequiebe, were cordial.
The two men displayed a genuine respect and trust of one another, and when Anza returned on Nov. 28, 1775, Quechan called the explorers “Queyé” (fellow citizens). When a mission site was discussed, the reply from the Quechan was “ajót, ajót” (good, good).
When Anza returned again in 1776, Palma traveled with him to Mexico City to petition the Viceroy of New Spain to establish a mission at Indian Hill.
Palma, and three other Quechans who had traveled with him, were baptized in Mexico City on Feb. 13, 1777. Palma was given the Spanish baptismal name Salvador Carlos Antonio.
According to historians, Father Francisco Garces had become acquainted with Palma during the 1770s, and the chief eventually asked Garces to come and live with the natives.
Although Garces wanted any permanent Spanish presence to remain small as not to upset the Quechan, his superiors did not agree, and ordered the construction of two missions - Puerto de la Purísima Concepción on Indian Hill, and San Pedro y San Pablo at Bicuner about 8 miles down river.
Construction on Purísima Concepción began in the fall of 1780, and Fathers Garces and Juan Antonio Barreneche were assigned to the mission.
During this period there were about 20 colonists, 12 laborers, 21 soldiers, and four priests in the area.
Just as Garces had predicted, the natives resented the white presence, and the friendly relations between them quickly deteriorated.
According to historians, the colonists ignored the rights of the Quechan, usurped the best lands and destroyed their crops.
Furious, the Quechan and their allies revolted, and attacked Purísima Concepción while Garces was presiding over Mass on July 17, 1781.
The mission at Bicuner was also attacked while Padres Diaz and Moreno were preparing for Mass. Both of them, as well as many of the soldiers stationed there, were killed.
Through the influence of Palma, Garces and Father Barranche were not harmed until July 19, when they were both beaten to death with clubs. As a result of the attack, both mission sites were razed to the ground.
The Quechan were then able to prevent Spanish access to the strategic Yuma Crossing, and effectively closed the trail for the rest of the Spanish colonial period, severely limiting Spanish expansion into Eastern California.
The site did not see heavy use by Caucasians again until Fort Yuma was established by the U.S. Army in 1852. Once the fort was erected, priests and nuns returned to the site to continue their work.
Fort Yuma was deserted by the Army on May 16, 1883. The site was then transferred to the Department of the Interior and the Quechan Tribe in 1884.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet remained to operate a boarding school that taught indigenous youth. The sisters remained until 1900 when the federal government phased out its support of all denominational schools.
In 1919, Franciscan Father Tiburtius Wand was sent to oversee the construction of a new church on Indian Hill at the site where Puerto de la Purísima Concepción had once stood.
In 1923, St. Thomas Indian Mission was dedicated. That was followed with the dedication of a statue of Father Garces in front of the church on Oct. 21, 1928.
The statue was created by artist Joseph Fleck of Germany and was placed at the site of Garces' death. The sculpture depicts Garces, a Native American and an angel.
According to the notes of an unknown priest that were found in 1960, the native is pleading with Garces to come with him to the Quechan. The angel is supposedly helping Garces to bear his personal cross of traveling through the wilderness and establishing a new mission to bring word of God and civilization to the native people.
The mission remains open to this day. Catholic Mass is held there on Saturdays and Sundays. It is located at 50 Picacho Road in Winterhaven. For more information call (760) 572-0283.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.