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In this monthly series, we’ll explore the history of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest from pioneer beginnings to the present day. The series will highlight important places of faith in the Northwest, the “holy ground” where the seeds of faith have been planted in our midst. -- Corinna Laughlin

Part 2, October 6, 2019


A fanciful representation of the Hudson’s Bay Company “Express,” the canoe route used by Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs, settlers and their families, and the first two missionary priests in the Pacific Northwest. (Wikimedia Commons)   

After Spain withdrew from the Pacific Northwest, Britain and the United States began to exert their own claims. Westward expansion increased rapidly after the Convention of 1818, a treaty between the United States and Great Britain, which agreed that the Northwest would be “free and open” to settlers from both nations—at least for the time being.

 The Hudson’s Bay Company moved quickly to consolidate British claims to the region. In 1825, Fort Vancouver was established on the north side of the Columbia River, and quickly became the Company’s most important outpost in the west. Meanwhile, the first Americans, mostly fur traders, were also making their way west in the wake of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Before long, people living in these remote areas were asking for priests. As early as 1824, an English woman wrote to Bishop Dubourg in New Orleans on behalf of the Catholics living near the Columbia River. In 1831, Bishop Rosati of St. Louis received a delegation of four Flathead men, who had traveled across the Rocky Mountains in search of “Blackrobes” for their people. The journey was so arduous that two of the men died shortly after arriving in St. Louis; the other two never made it home. And in 1834, some Catholic settlers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wrote to Bishop Provencher on the Canadian frontier, asking him to come. We are, they wrote, in “Great Angstitty [anxiety] for youre arrival.” Bishop Provencher assured them he was looking for a priest to send, and that in the meantime they ought to mend their ways: “What idea do you give of God and of the holy religion you profess to the Indians?” he asked. “You prejudice them against a religion which you violate.”

The calls for “Blackrobes” in the west would soon be answered. Two French Canadian priests were chosen for the mission: the 43-year-old Father Francis Norbert Blanchet and 29-year-old Father Modeste Demers. With some difficulty, Archbishop Signay of Quebec convinced the Hudson’s Bay Company to provide passage west for the two priests. The source of the difficulty lay in tensions between Protestants and Catholics (sadly, religious division was one of the first things the Old World brought to the New). The Company’s leadership found it expedient to have priests in the area—for one thing, many of their employees were Catholic; for another, the presence of French Canadians could help solidify British claims to the disputed territory in the Northwest. However, Protestant missionaries already in the region were adamant that no Catholics should interfere with their efforts. In the end, thanks largely to the determined support of John McLoughlin, Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, the two priests were granted permission to travel west, but only on condition that they minister on the north side of the Columbia—far from the Willamette Valley where the majority of the Catholics were. Thus the first Catholic missionary efforts in the Pacific Northwest were undertaken in what is now the Archdiocese of Seattle.

On May 3, 1838, the journey finally got underway. Archbishop Signay reminded Blanchet (now grandly known as the “Vicar General”) and Demers that they were being sent, first and foremost, to “the Indians scattered in that country,” and secondly, “to the wicked Christians who… live in licentiousness and the forgetfulness of their duties.” They were to study the native peoples’ languages and prepare grammars; teach the faith, prepare people for baptism and regularize “fur trade” marriages; establish schools and catechism classes for children; and plant crosses in all “remarkable places… so as to take possession of these various places in the name of the Catholic religion.”

ABOVE: Father Francis Norbert Blanchet (left) and Father Modeste Demers (right), the first missionary priests in the Pacific Northwest. Wikimedia Commons.  BELOW:  A map of their journey from Montreal to Vancouver, prepared by N. Meany, SJ for Wilfried Schoenberg’s A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983. (Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1987).  
The journey lasted seven months. The travelers—including Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs, families headed for new lives in the west, and the two priests—followed a circuitous river route, which added hundreds of miles to the distance covered (Blanchet calculated that they travelled 5,325 miles in 196 days). Much of the way was traversed by canoe, interspersed with long and tedious portages between rivers. In some areas they journeyed on horseback. The two priests did not wait until they arrived to begin their ministry: all along the way, they performed baptisms and catechized young and old of every race, making an effort to preach the faith even when they were to remain only a day or two in a given place.
On October 10, they finally passed the crest of the Rocky Mountains. The two priests rose at three in the morning to offer Mass and “to consecrate to their Creator these mountains and abrupt peaks whose prodigious height ascend towards heaven to celebrate in such beautiful language the praise of the Almighty.”
After crossing the Rockies, they continued west to the Columbia River. At Big Bend, one of the overloaded boats capsized, and twelve died, including men, women, and children. “Sad, long and excruciating was the night,” wrote Blanchet; “the next day, the boat having been repaired, the survivors continued their sorrowful journey.”

They headed south on the Columbia River, stopping at “Forts Colville, O’Kanagan, and Walla Walla.” In each place, Blanchet later wrote, “immense crowds of Indians assembled in order to behold the Blackgowns whose presence they had so long waited for.”

At long last, on Saturday, November 24, 1838, they reached their destination, Fort Vancouver, where they were welcomed by James Douglas, who was in charge of operations in the absence of John McLoughlin. There was little rest for the priests after their extraordinary journey. That very night, they gathered the Catholics of the place for prayer and instruction. And the next day, Sunday, they celebrated Mass with as much solemnity as they could muster.

“November 25th., 1838, was beautiful as a summer day,” Blanchet remembered. The Fort’s school house was prepared for the Mass. “The building was too small to contain the crowd composed of the gentlemen, ladies and Catholics of the outside camp…. The divine service of that day was moving, even to tears, as many of the Canadians had not heard Mass for ten, fifteen and even twenty years. That day was one for them that would never be forgotten.” The Catholic Church had returned to the Pacific Northwest, and this time they were here to stay.

Corinna Laughlin, Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy

Sources consulted
· Wilfred P. Schoenberg, SJ, A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest
· Archbishop F. N. Blanchet, Historical Sketches of the Church in Oregon during the Past Forty Years (1878)
· History of the Hudson’s Bay Company: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history




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