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Priest’s devotion to peace, understanding resonates through time

His name graces an otherwise forgettable street that stretches nine short blocks in downtown Las Vegas.

Father Francisco Garces, the trailblazing Franciscan priest who traveled so far in his lifetime, could have walked the length of Garces Avenue in a few minutes.

He no doubt would have made friends along the way.

If he’s known at all these days outside the walls of Catholic churches and Nevada history classes, it’s as an explorer who is recognized as the first European American to set foot in what would become the Silver State. (There remains some question as to whether he actually reached the Nevada side of the Colorado River.) Although his career as a missionary priest was relatively brief, just 13 years, his impact on the region and its people was great.

But with the passage of time his name has become more an answer to a trivia question than an important symbol of peace and courage in most minds. And that’s unfortunate.

Father John B. McShane finds himself thinking of Garces often these days. A longtime Nevada priest, McShane divides his time between Sacred Heart Church in Ely and ministering to the downtrodden with the Saint Benedict Labre Homeless Ministry in Las Vegas.

He’s spent some of his spare time researching the life of Garces, who was born in 1738 in the Aragon region of north-central Spain. He became a Franciscan priest at 25, and by 1768 was assigned to a part of the Spanish mission system that stretched through Mexico and into the American West. Garces was assigned to a mission in the Sonoran Desert near what is now Tucson and spent much of his time ministering to native tribes.

“He’s kind of an inspiration to me,” McShane says Tuesday before heading north to Ely. “I’m fascinated by his zeal, his courage, and his willingness to adapt to the life of the American Indians he served. He ate their food and sat with them. He was a priest of the people.”

Given his devotion to bringing the Catholic faith to tribes that neither understood nor trusted the Spanish, and with good reason, Garces was a brave fellow, indeed.

One of his colleagues would observe, “Father Garces is so well fitted to get along with the Indians and go among them that he appears to be but an Indian himself. … God has created him, as I see it, solely for the purpose of seeking out thee unhappy, ignorant and rustic people.”

His devotion to bringing the faith to the region’s natives ended on July 19, 1781 with what would become known as the Yuma Massacre. He was among the priests clubbed to death by Indians who felt their treaties with the Spanish had been betrayed.

A plaque at Lorenzi Park honors the selfless priest, McShane reminds me. There are statues in Bakersfield, Calif., a foot bridge in Tucson, a stained-glass window at Saint Thomas Aquinas Cathedral in Reno, another statue in Yuma, and a train station in Needles, Calif.

Thanks to the combined efforts of public officials and priests, including Monsignor Gregory Gordon of St. Anne Catholic Church, an official state marker honoring Garces will once again be found at State Route 163 and U.S. Highway 95 near Laughlin and the Colorado River. The original marker reportedly disappeared during a road widening project approximately 15 years ago. A ceremony celebrating the marker’s return and honoring the memory of the people’s priest is scheduled to take place this spring.

You’ll have to look a bit, but you can still find signs of Father Garces.

His devotion to peace and understanding is worth remembering in times like these.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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