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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 3, November 3, 2019


This Miraculous Medal is among several Catholic artefacts unearthed in archaeological research at Fort Vancouver, reflecting the presence of Catholics and the work of the early missionaries. Source here.     

The priests barely rested after their long journey. Arriving on a Saturday, they began a mission on Tuesday, gathering the Catholics of Fort Vancouver and their children for teaching, prayer, and hymn-singing. Couples married outside the Church were promptly separated until their marriages could be blessed by the priests. The mission continued daily (with a few brief interruptions) for four months and twenty days.

 Fort Vancouver in 1838 was an extraordinary place to be. The Chief Factor was the redoubtable John McLoughlin—Scots-Irish on his father’s side, French Canadian on his mother’s. Baptized Catholic, he was raised Episcopalian, and while he welcomed missionaries of many denominations, he was a special advocate for the Catholics. McLoughlin studied medicine and soon went to work for the North West Company, where he became a partner by the age of 30. After the merger of the North West Company with their chief rival, Hudson’s Bay, McLoughlin directed the Company’s efforts in the west. Under his leadership, Fort Vancouver became a center for trade, primarily beaver pelts and lumber, with an extraordinarily wide reach. McLoughlin established a lively commerce with Russian outposts to the north, Mexican California to the south, and Hawaii to the west. He was renowned for his hospitality and for his high style: “The chief factor’s table, set with English porcelain, and provided with the best of French wines, would have given pleasure to a prince,” writes Wilfrid Schoenberg, SJ. Eating arrangements at Fort Vancouver were quite formal, with the officers of the Company dining apart from the other employees in the large hall. “It has been remarked,” observed a visitor to Fort Vancouver in 1843, “that the absence of their wives and the females of the establishment from the table does not contribute to the refinement of manners.”

In addition to the Fort itself—surrounded by intimidating wooden walls 25 feet high—there were farms, sawmills, and a bustling village on the river with about 700 inhabitants, including native peoples of various tribes and people from the British Isles, the United States, France, and other European nations, as well as a sizable number of Hawaiians.

The missionaries gave their first instructions in French and began to teach the diverse group to sing favorite French hymns. The music attracted the interest of non-Catholics in the Fort, and it drew the native peoples in the vicinity like a magnet—as many as 140, by the missionaries’ count, sometimes crowded around the door to listen to the singing. Soon the mission expanded to include sessions for native peoples outside of Fort Vancouver. The priests offered at least four sessions of catechism, singing, and prayer each day for various groups.

Teaching the faith to the native peoples, who spoke a number of different languages, was an extraordinary challenge. Even before contact with Europeans, the native peoples around the Columbia River had developed a shared trade language, Chinuk Wawa, or Chinook Jargon. With the coming of Europeans, this pidgin language became the primary means of communication in the Northwest.

An 1840 version of Blanchet’s Catholic Ladder (detail), tracing the whole of salvation history, from the creation at the bottom, to the arrival of Fathers Blanchet and Demers (represented by the two vertical lines) at the top. Image courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.  
Father Modeste Demers had a gift for languages, and mastered Chinuk Wawa within a few weeks. Even with a vocabulary limited to a few hundred words, Father Demers was able to translate basic prayers, the catechism, and even hymns, and was soon able to communicate with people all over Puget Sound, both natives and newcomers, without the help of an interpreter. Meanwhile, the French Catholic influence added new words to the Chinuk Wawa: saklema (sacrament); lames (from the French for Mass, La Messe); Pak (from Pâques, Easter); and Paston plie (Protestantism—literally, “Boston [American] prayer”!).
While this first mission was underway at Vancouver, Father Blanchet took a few days to head north. Those who had been released from active service at the Fort were known as “freemen,” and some of these men, with their families, had established a small settlement in the Cowlitz Prairie, north of Vancouver. The Hudson’s Bay Company leadership had proposed this place for a permanent residence for the priests, being far enough away from the Methodist missionaries in the Willamette Valley. Blanchet later described his journey and arrival in Cowlitz in his book Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon (in which he speaks of himself in the third person): “the Vicar General left Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon, December 12th, 1838, in a canoe paddled by four Indians, and reached the Cowlitz settlement on Sunday, the 16th, at 10 a.m. The first mass ever celebrated at that place was said on that day, and another one on Monday in the house of Mr. Simon Plamondon, before the settlers and their families, who were much pleased to learn that the priests were to reside among them.” Blanchet selected a site for the mission (“a piece of land of clear prairie of 640 acres”) and returned to Vancouver—not without first designating François Fagnant, one of the farmers, as catechist to teach the others until he should return. (Lay ministry has been a reality of the Church in western Washington from the very beginning!)

Blanchet returned to Cowlitz the following spring. He arrived on March 16, 1839, and the following day the mission commenced in earnest, continuing until May 1. Blanchet lodged with Plamondon (who would later marry a Blanchet niece!), who also provided a large room for the priest’s use in teaching and celebrating Mass. News of the mission spread quickly, and soon native peoples began coming in great numbers, and sometimes from great distances. Chief Tsla-lakum of Whidbey Island, almost 150 miles away, travelled five days to hear the message of the priest.

The native people, unlike the handful of Catholic families living at Cowlitz, could remain only a few days, not weeks and months. Father Blanchet rose to the challenge. “In looking for a plan the Vicar General imagined that by representing on a square stick, the forty centuries before Christ by 40 marks; the thirty three years of our Lord by 33 points, followed by a cross; and the eighteen centuries and thirty-nine years since, by 18 marks and 39 points, would pretty well answer his design.” Using the simplest of materials, Blanchet created a tool which allowed him to explain the Christian world-view, from the beginning to the present (1839!). What was more, the stick could be handed on to native elders, who could use it to share with their people what they had learned.

The “Catholic ladder,” as it came to be called, was, in the words of historian Wilfred Schoenberg, “a howling success.” It was soon used all over the Northwest, by both Catholics and Protestants, though this shared approach was anything but ecumenical: in later versions of the ladder, Blanchet added a dead branch to illustrate the Protestant Reformation, and Protestant missionaries retaliated by depicting Catholic bishops descending into hell on their own versions of the Ladder. Sectarian controversy would mar, and shape, the early years of the Catholic Church in the Northwest.

Corinna Laughlin, Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy

Works 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)
· Douglas Deur, “Fort Vancouver as a Base for Missionary Efforts,” https://www.nps.gov/articles/fovamissionaries.htm
· Fort Vancouver: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/places/forts-posts/fort-vancouver



St. Francis Xavier Church (also known as the “Cowlitz Mission”) is a living link with Blanchet’s 1839 mission on the Cowlitz Prairie. The present church was built in 1901.

139 Spencer Rd Toledo, WA 98591

Fort Vancouver is well worth a visit, with a reconstruction of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver and much more. Costumed guides give a feel for the era in the working blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, kitchen, and garden.  

612 E Reserve St 
Vancouver, WA 98661





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Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303