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Bell and paper clips from the desk of Bishop Edward John O’Dea, third Bishop of Seattle.
Upon the death of a bishop, it is customary to store everything on and in his desk
in the diocesan archives. The Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle
has kept the bell Bishop O’Dea used to call his secretary, his paper clips,
sealing wax, pencils and other items ever since his death
on Christmas Day, 1932.
Courtesy of the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.   

Bishop Edward O’Dea served as Bishop of Seattle from 1896 until his death on Christmas Day, 1932. His extraordinarily long tenure makes him a towering figure in the history of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest.

O’Dea was born in Massachusetts, but while he was still a young boy his family migrated west, settling in Portland. Mother Joseph became a family friend—as the story goes, during the building of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Mother Joseph would go in each night after the workmen had gone home, to inspect their work with her expert eye, while a young boy—often “Eddie” O’Dea—carried her lantern for her.  O’Dea was a regular altar server at Portland’s Cathedral where (according to a biography written for his Golden Jubilee) he faithfully assisted “since first his boyish tongue could master the Latin responses.”  He was also an excellent horseman: his jet black mare Deerfoot was banned from competing at the Hillsboro County Fair after an unprecedented string of victories.

After finishing high school, O’Dea told Archbishop F. N. Blanchet of Portland that he wanted to become a priest.  Blanchet decided to send him to Montreal where, decades earlier, he and his brother A. M. A. Blanchet had prepared for the priesthood.  In the summer of 1876, at the age of 19, O’Dea set off for seminary, traveling alone, with a letter of recommendation from Archbishop Blanchet in his pocket. The journey was grueling: he had to take a five-day boat trip to San Francisco and then board a train for the long trip east.
O’Dea’s luggage was quite heavy, owing to the fact that he was carrying a huge number of nickels! In Portland in 1876, the preferred currency was gold dust, and many merchants would not accept nickels—which did not prevent them from ending up in the collection plate. Father Fierens, pastor of Portland’s Cathedral, had a large supply of nickels which he gave to his former altar boy—enough, as it turned out, to cover six months’ expenses at the seminary.  As O’Dea liked to say later, it was the only time in his life when wealth was a burden to him.

Because of the length and expense of the journey, O’Dea would not return to Portland until after his ordination six years later. He reached home in 1883, and Archbishop Seghers (later martyred in Alaska) assigned him as assistant at the Portland Cathedral. He then served as secretary to Archbishop Gross for ten years before becoming pastor of St. Patrick’s in Portland. It was there that a reporter from the Oregonian came one evening in 1896 and banged on the front door.  O’Dea put his head out of his bedroom window to see what the man wanted.

“We have a dispatch from Rome saying you have been appointed Bishop of Nisqually; have you anything to say about it?” the reporter shouted.

“I haven’t a thing to say, and this is the first I have heard of it,” O’Dea replied.

The rumors were true. On September 8, 1896, O’Dea was consecrated bishop at St. James, Vancouver.  His installation liturgy was one of the most splendid the Northwest had ever seen, with five bishops and 85 priests present, and the P-I described him as “one of the youngest as well as one of the best-looking prelates in the United States.”

But O’Dea was tougher than he looked.  He embraced his new task of missionary bishop, traveling up and down his vast diocese, which at that time consisted of 40 churches and missions scattered across 70,000 square miles--the entire state of Washington.  Much of his time was spent on horseback.  One of his priests, stationed in a remote corner of the diocese, complained of the isolation and hardship, so O’Dea invited him to take a few days off and join him on his rounds. “I endured the stiff journeys for a few days through wind, rain and mosquitoes and the worse nights in vermin-infested and noisy lodgings,” the priest later wrote, “and then I begged permission to terminate my ‘holiday’ and go back to the comparative ease of my mission.” 
O’Dea encountered every challenge cheerfully and creatively.  He was so impressed with the choir of the parish in Cheney, one of the few choirs of any kind in the eastern part of the state, that he loaded the entire choir along with a wheezy portable organ into a wagon and brought them along on his pastoral tour of the region!

O’Dea was a gentle leader. Once, in conversation with a pastor, O’Dea proposed a particular way of doing things.  The priest asked, “is this a command?” O’Dea responded, “I do not command any man.” Those simple words said everything about O’Dea’s quiet, effective leadership, which would encounter and surmount incredible challenges—including the building of a great Cathedral.

Corinna Laughlin, Director of Liturgy




Return to St. James Cathedral Parish Website

804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303