In Your Midst

1903: The Priest, the Bishop, and the Great Northern Railroad

July 2003

In This Issue:
The story of St. James Cathedral in Seattle begins with the legendary Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine.

There are, of course, many other ways one could begin it—with the simple wood-frame Cathedral in Vancouver dedicated to SS. James and Augustine presided over by the first Bishop of Nesqually (as the diocese was then called), Bishop Blanchet, who arrived in 1850. Or with the Alaska Gold Rush, to which Seattle owed its growth and its tremendous prosperity in the 1890s. Or with the appointment of Edward J. O’Dea, an energetic young priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, whom a 1903 Seattle P-I article described, in all seriousness, as “one of the youngest, as well as one of the best-looking prelates in the United States”!

But it was Father Prefontaine, who arrived in Seattle in 1865, and designed, built, decorated, and served as pastor of its first Catholic church, Our Lady of Good Help, who first suggested that Seattle should be the center of Catholic presence in Washington State. Father Prefontaine had watched Seattle transform in the course of forty years from a pioneer settlement to a wealthy and fast-growing city. He had watched it survive a devastating fire and countless other setbacks. And so, no sooner did Father Prefontaine hear of Bishop O’Dea’s appointment than he gathered together a group, including priests and some of Seattle’s most prominent Catholic laymen, to draft a letter to the Bishop-Elect, urging him to move his residence and his cathedral from Vancouver to Seattle as soon as possible.

Father Prefontaine with his beloved Church of Our Lady of Good Help, for which he was architect, master carpenter, interior decorator, and pastor. “Father Prefontaine’s Church” became Seattle’s pro-cathedral in 1903. (Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle)

The letter spoke glowingly of the “commercial, industrial, political and social” prospects of the young city, “the brightest of any city on the Pacific coast.” And the writers did not hesitate to point out that the Catholic population of Seattle was “the largest and wealthiest of any community within the diocese.” (Just two months before Father Prefontaine’s committee wrote their letter, many Northwest banks, including 14 in Tacoma, had been forced to close their doors in the midst of nationwide financial panic. “Temporal concerns” acquired great importance in this time of economic recession.)

But the letter touched on darker realities as well. Seattle, they wrote, “has become and will remain the headquarters and chief battleground of all the elements hostile to the church. The morale of the church militant requires the inspiring presence of her leader where the battle wages fiercest.” For Father Prefontaine, such language was not merely rhetoric. It was a real reflection of the attitudes of Catholics living in an atmosphere of decidedly anti-Catholic sentiment—sentiment that occasionally erupted into violence.

O’Dea’s reply to Father Prefontaine and the other members of his “esteemed committee” was swift and diplomatic. “As the sacred trust which I am about to assume, as well as its serious duties and responsibilities, are entirely new to me,” he wrote, “you can readily understand that I must first become acquainted, not only with their nature, but also with their different requirements. To do this, will require some time, and to make any premature advance in any direction might be imprudent.”

Perhaps Bishop-Elect O’Dea knew that some $25,000 was still owing on the Vancouver Cathedral of St. James, then only 11 years old! In any case, no one could accuse the young Bishop of imprudence. For more than five years O’Dea worked, got to know his people and their communities, paid off debts, and considered the possibilities.

Bishop Edward J. O’Dea: “one of the youngest as well as one of the best-looking prelates in the United States.” (Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle)

The seed planted by Father Prefontaine’s letter was slow of growth, and in the end it required no less a force than the Great Northern Pacific Railroad to spur the Bishop to action. For nearly ten years the Great Northern had talked about building a tunnel underneath Seattle to improve rail access to the city. It was to be, among other superlatives, the widest and tallest tunnel in the world. In early 1902, that project suddenly became a reality. Ground was to be broken the following year; and the route of the tunnel led directly underneath Our Lady of Good Help Church. The railroad was prepared to pay $75,000 for the land on which the church stood—an offer not likely to be improved upon.

O’Dea lingered no longer. In March of 1902, he wrote to Rome, requesting to move his See from Vancouver to Seattle. And at about the same time, he quietly purchased a certain block of land at Ninth and Columbia on First Hill.

Though permission from Rome was still pending (in the end, the authorities there pondered the matter as long as O’Dea himself had!), the Bishop’s decision had been made. On Sunday, February 15, 1903, he said Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Good Help (or “Father Prefontaine’s Church,” as it was more commonly called), and announced the transfer of the See. The Catholic Northwest Progress reported that “the news spread into all quarters of the city within a few hours, and a very satisfied feeling took possession of all who have an interest in the matter.” Satisfied, perhaps, because they knew what this move would entail: a new cathedral, bringing a new dignity to the young city, and making a strong statement about the solidarity of its Catholic community as well. Bishop O’Dea told the P-I, “Until we build a cathedral I will use the Church of Our Lady of Good Help as a pro-cathedral, and it will be the official church of the bishop…. we think the time opportune to seriously consider the subject of building a cathedral. The need of such a building is urgent and I have every confidence that we will be able to carry out our present plans.”

On that same busy Sunday, Bishop O’Dea dedicated Seattle’s newest Catholic Church (no fewer than four others were under construction at the same time): St. Mary’s at Twentieth and Weller. Following the Mass, he spoke from the steps of the newly-consecrated altar, and his praise of those assembled was also a call to action for his latest and greatest building project: “Great as is your work here, I admire your faith more. Because you believe and love God you have made these sacrifices. Whatever you do for God He will not allow to go unrewarded. He will not be outdone in generosity.”

From that time on, Seattle’s new cathedral became O’Dea’s driving force, and in the midst of myriad other duties, the young Bishop would work indefatigably towards his goal.

IN OUR NEXT ISSUE: Bishop O’Dea engages the help of Father Casey, a master fundraiser from Portland, and plans the first annual Cathedral Fair. At the Fair, Prof. E. P. Ederer directs the first known performance of the Cathedral Choir. Click here to read the article!

All quotations are from materials held in the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle. Special thanks to Jessica Pitre-Williams of the Archives for her assistance with this project.

This article is first in a series about the early days of St. James Cathedral... Read more by following the links below.

No. 2:  "The Cathedral Fair"
No. 3:  "Making Music in Seattle"
No. 4:  "The Cathedral Builders"
No. 5:  "The Founding of the Cathedral Parish"
No. 6:  "Bishop O'Dea's Neighbors"
No. 7:  "An Innocent Abroad: Bishop O'Dea Goes to Rome"

No. 8:  "The Laying of the Cornerstone"

For further reading: House of God, Gate of Heaven: Seattle’s Cathedral; Seattle Now and Then, Second Edition, by Paul Dorpat; Abundance of Grace: The History of the Archdiocese of Seattle 1850-2000; and Saint James the Greater by Maria Laughlin.

Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

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