Father Prefontaine   Mother Cabrini   Bishop O'Dea

Father Francis X. Prefontaine

        One of the heroes of the Cathedral’s earliest days was Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine.  He was one of the first priests in Seattle.
            Francis was born near Montreal, in Canada, in 1838.  French was his native language.  He was the oldest of five children in a very devout family.  His mother especially inspired his vocation to become a priest.  Francis was ordained at the age of 25.  He was an expert in philosophy, theology, and Latin; but his seminary studies certainly didn’t prepare him for the adventures that lay ahead!  Just three weeks after his ordination he was on a ship bound for the Pacific Northwest, where there was a great need for missionary priests.
        The journey took many weeks.  Before the Panama Canal was completed (that didn’t happen until 1914), ships had to sail clear around South America to reach the Northwest.  Father Prefontaine arrived in Vancouver, Washington in February, 1864.  There he joined the region’s first Bishop, also a native of Montreal:  Augustin Magloire Alexander Blanchet.  (Bishop Blanchet’s brother was the Archbishop of Portland, Oregon!)
        Father Prefontaine’s first assignment was to minister to the people at Fort Stevens.  The young priest knew very little English, and after his first homily, one of the men said to him, “Well, Father, you certainly did your very best; but, I am sorry I could not understand a word.”  (A few years later, the same man heard him preach again:  “Say, Father, you certainly have improved, and wonderfully; I understood every word you said this morning!”)
        There were scary adventures, too.  Once Father Prefontaine took a boat from Astoria in Oregon back to Fort Stevens.  The boat’s captain set him down on shore, assuring him that it was only a mile or so to the Fort.  But night fell and the priest was still wandering in the wilderness.  He finally gathered some branches for a bed and prepared to sleep on the ground near the river.  But the rising waters of high tide soon woke him up, and he climbed to higher ground.  Finally, he fell asleep.  Only when he woke up did he find he had spent the night in an Indian burial-ground!
        For the next few years, Father Prefontaine traveled all over the Sound, from Steilacoom (south of Tacoma) as far north as British Columbia.  He ministered to the needs of Native Americans and white settlers, both Catholics and non-Catholics.
        Father Prefontaine’s first visit to Seattle was in 1867.  At that time, it was a rough settlement with about 600 inhabitants in all.  There were two main streets with simple wooden houses, and Native American huts lined the waterfront.  Father Prefontaine found that there were just 10 Catholics—and only three of them attended the first Mass he offered in Seattle!
        But there was something special about Seattle, and Father Prefontaine fell in love with this little settlement.  He rented a shanty at the corner of what is now Third Avenue and Jefferson Street (his rent was just $6 per month), and he asked Bishop Blanchet if he could build a church in Seattle.
        Bishop Blanchet said no at first:  he thought Seattle was a “lost cause”!  But Father Prefontaine pleaded with him, and finally the Bishop agreed.  He could build his church, he said, provided it didn’t cost the diocese anything.
        Father Prefontaine went right to work.  He purchased a piece of land at Second Avenue and Washington Street with his own money, and he cleared the stumps and undergrowth away himself.  He raised enough money to build a tiny church—only 50 feet long and 25 feet wide—and he did almost all the work himself.  He was the architect, the carpenter, the painter, the decorator, and the pastor!  The little church, which he called Our Lady of Good Help, was completed in the fall of 1870.
        As it turned out, Bishop Blanchet was wrong about Seattle.  It continued to grow, and grow, and grow—and by 1890, it was a city of 42,000 inhabitants!  It wasn’t long before Seattle outgrew the Church of Our Lady of Good Help, and in 1882 it was enlarged and remodeled.  Father Prefontaine’s home was in the basement, and he lived there for more than 20 years.
        In 1896, Edward J. O’Dea was appointed the third Bishop of Nesqually.  Father Prefontaine wrote to him immediately.  He urged him to move the Cathedral from Vancouver to Seattle.  Bishop O’Dea considered the matter for a long time, but he finally decided that Father Prefontaine was right.  In 1903, he wrote to Rome and asked for permission to build a new cathedral in Seattle.
        In that same year, 1903, Father Prefontaine’s old Church of Our Lady of Good Help had to be moved.  The Great Northern Railroad was building a tunnel into Seattle, and it would go directly underneath the old church.  So Our Lady of Good Help was dismantled and moved several blocks north, to 5th and Jefferson.  The land that Father Prefontaine had purchased for $200 sold for $105,000!
        In the last years of his life, Father Prefontaine served as chaplain at Holy Names Academy.  He lived to see the dedication of St. James Cathedral.  By the time he died, in 1909, Seattle was a booming town.  And thanks in part to Father Prefontaine, a grand Catholic Cathedral dominated the skyline!

How much did you learn?
(Highlight the blank line under each question to see the answers!)

What was Father Prefontaine's native language?
Which Bishop didn't think Seattle would amount to anything?
Bishop Blanchet
What was the name of Father Prefontaine's beloved Seattle church?
Our Lady of Good Help
When did Father Prefontaine die?
1909, in Seattle

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

        Saint Frances Cabrini, better known as Mother Cabrini, was born in Italy in 1850. She was named after a great missionary, the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier. As a little girl, she dreamed of being a missionary herself, of traveling around the world to teach people about Jesus. She especially wanted to go to China. She would make little boats out of paper, and fill them with violets. As she sailed her little boats down the river near her home, she imagined that they were ships filled with missionaries, heading off to do God’s work.
        Her favorite subject in school was geography. She loved to study the atlas because she could imagine all the places she would go to spread the Gospel. Sometimes people laughed at her: “You, so little and so ignorant,” they said. “You dream of becoming a missionary?”
        When Frances grew up, she decided to become a religious sister. But she was turned away by two different convents before her Bishop suggested that she start her own order—a missionary order. She soon did, and called her new community the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Frances was the leader of the community, so she was called “Mother.” She was twenty-four years old. The new order grew and flourished, doing good things all over Italy. It seemed that her dream of going to China was about to come true!
        But Pope Leo XIII had something different in mind. He asked her to go to the United States to minister to the Italian immigrants there. At that time between 50,000 and 100,000 Italians were moving to the United States each year. Most were poor, without money, without education, and with very little English. In the U.S. they were often treated harshly. They were separated from their culture, and from the practice of their faith. So Mother Cabrini set out for America with her sisters to minister to the immigrants.
        She arrived in New York in 1889, and immediately began founding hospitals, orphanages, and schools. She did amazing things, but she knew where her strength came from: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me,” was her motto.
        Mother Cabrini came to Seattle in 1903. There was a great need for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart here, for there were many Italian immigrants in Seattle, and some had not been to church in many years. Mother Cabrini loved Seattle—she worked here for many years, building schools, hospitals, and orphanages; praying often in the Cathedral, and building a hospital just across the street!
Mother Cabrini went back to New York in 1916, and just one year later she died. Though they did not always get along, Seattle’s Bishop O’Dea was one of the first to recognize what an amazing person she was. “She was one of the greatest women of the twentieth century,” he said when she died.
        Mother Cabrini became a saint in 1949. She was the first American citizen to be canonized. Though she never did go to China, she did incredible things on three continents. Her feast day is November 13.

How much did you learn?
(Highlight the blank line under each question to see the answers!)

When was Mother Cabrini born?
1850 in Italy
Where did she dream of going as a missionary? Did she ever get there?
China.  No, she never went.
What was her motto?
"I can do all things in him who strengthens me."  Philippians 4:13
When did she come to Seattle?
What kind of work did she do?
Ministry to immigrants, building orphanages, schools, and hospitals

Bishop O’Dea

    When Bishop O’Dea arrived in western Washington, his Diocese was called Nesqually and the Cathedral was in Vancouver. Vancouver was a good-sized town, but Seattle was a growing city. Bishop O’Dea knew the Cathedral should be in the city, so it could serve as many people as possible. In 1903, Bishop O’Dea wrote to Rome. He asked permission to change the name of his Diocese from Nesqually to Seattle. And he asked for permission to build a new St. James Cathedral.
        Building a cathedral takes a long time. Some of the great cathedrals of Europe took hundreds of years to build! So Bishop O’Dea was very patient. He chose just the right plot of land, high up on First Hill overlooking Seattle. He talked to many people to see what they thought. He wrote to many architects and thought for a long time about the kind of cathedral he wanted. And finally, the work began!
        The Cathedral Parish is actually older than the Cathedral. On November 13, 1904, Bishop O’Dea dedicated a small, temporary Chapel on the Cathedral block. This was to be the home of the new Cathedral parish. They didn’t wait until the Cathedral was finished to begin praying together! Instead, they started building their community. At first, the Chapel was just big enough to hold them; but soon the parish began to grow.
        From St. Edward’s Chapel (Bishop O’Dea’s first name was Edward, and he named the Chapel for his own patron saint), the parishioners of the new Cathedral parish could watch the Cathedral being built. There were some great moments along the way. On November 12, 1905, Bishop O’Dea laid the cornerstone of the new Cathedral. At that time the building was well underway.
        The Cathedral was finally finished at the end of 1907. Just a few days before Christmas—on December 22, 1907—Bishop O’Dea dedicated the new St. James Cathedral. Thousands of people came for the beautiful liturgy, as the walls of the Cathedral were sprinkled with holy water and anointed with the sacred oil of Chrism, setting this building apart for the worship of God. The Cathedral was the largest and most magnificent church in Seattle, and the towers could be seen for miles, by ships coming into Puget Sound.

How much did you learn?
(Highlight the blank line under each question to see the answers!)

What was the Diocese of Seattle originally called?
What was Bishop O'Dea’s first name?
How long did it take to build the Cathedral?
1904-1907 (three years)
When was the Cathedral finally finished?
December 1907


Return to the Kids' Page
Return to the Centennial Home Page
Return to the Cathedral Narthex