The Old Mission at Cataldo

Although missionary activity in the Pacific Northwest is most often associated with Protestant evangelism, in the early 1840s European Catholics also entered the scene. Today, the oldest standing building in Idaho is a church constructed by the Coeur d’Alene Indians for the Sacred Heart Mission. It stands on a northern Idaho knoll as an impressive testament to a mission tradition more commonly associated with California and the desert Southwest. The history of the Cataldo Mission began in 1831 when a delegation of Nez Perce Indians ventured east to St. Louis seeking a meeting with William Clark, then the superintendent of Indian Affairs. Although there was a significant language barrier, their goal is interpreted to be “black-robes” by the Catholic Jesuits. This meeting, along with subsequent delegations of Indians, was seen by many as a call for Christianity to step in and make converts of the Northwest Indians.

In 1836, Protestant missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman moved in with the Cayuse on the Walla Walla River, while Henry and Eliza Spalding chose to minister to the Nez Perce Tribe in Lapwai. However, it was not until 1842 that Catholic missionaries reached Idaho. Father Pierre Jean DeSmet traveled through the territory along with several other Jesuit priests. On his way back to St. Mary’s mission in Montana he encountered some Coeur d’Alene families, who traveled with him from there. After receiving some religious instruction and baptisms they invited the Father to visit the tribe. Soon after, some Coeur d’Alenes arrived at St. Mary’s Mission to request instruction. DeSmet then joins the tribe at Lake Coeur d’Alene where he is greeted with an enthusiasm often attributed to a century-old prophesy by Circling Raven that black robed men would someday assist the tribe.

Unable to remain himself, DeSmet promised to send black-robe missionaries to establish a tribal ministry. In the fall, Father Nicolas Point and Father Charles Huet arrived. After choosing a site along the St. Joseph River, they established the first incarnation of the Sacred Heart Mission, with a crudely built church and small settlement. This location was used only a few years, due to destructive spring flooding. In 1845, Father Joseph Joset relieved Point and oversaw moving the mission to a more suitable location, on a knoll overlooking the Coeur d’Alene River. Thus began the “Golden Age” of the Sacred Heart Mission. In 1850, a highly-educated priest named Antonio Ravalli arrived at the mission and began work on a grand 90 foot by 40 foot Mediterranean-classical church with a high cathedral ceiling. Ravalli’s design is constructed by converted Indians using the few simple tools on hand, fastening the wooden beams with pegs due to the unavailability of nails, and filling out walls with a mixture of grass, straw, and mud. By 1853, the Mission building is completed and the skills of Ravalli and Brother Huybrechts are utilized to create intricate interior artwork that is carved and formed out of simple materials that are available in the area. Wallpaper was simply painted newspaper, while lighting is fashioned out of empty tin cans.

The mission became the center of a flourishing settlement with a communal garden, pastures, and livestock to support the inhabitants. The missionaries proved to be good intermediaries in the Indian Wars that ravaged the area. In 1858, some of the Coeur d’Alenes joined the Palouse, Spokane, and Yakima tribes in a short war with the U.S. Army. Fearing retribution against the entire tribe, Father Joset requested a meeting between the U.S. government and the Coeur d’ Alenes. In response, the mission was the site of peace-treaty negotiations between the Coeur d’Alenes and Col. George Wright to end their participation in the Northern Plateau War. Since the missionaries were not American, the Indians felt they could trust them and since they were Europeans, the American military under Col. George Wright felt they could trust them as well.

A 624 mile military road connecting Fort Walla Walla, Washington to Fort Benton, Montana was completed in 1862 by Captain John Mullan who often made the Mission his headquarters during the years he was planning and building the thoroughfare. This road subsequently accommodated tens of thousands of gold seekers who passed within a few hundred feet of the Mission grounds. With increased attention focused on this area, in 1863 Idaho Territory is created by a Congressional act signed by President Lincoln. Father Joseph M. Cataldo is assigned to the Mission of the Sacred Heart in 1865 and Andrew Seltice, one of the first catholic converts, became chief of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Two years later, unbeknownst to the tribe, a 250,000 acre parcel of land near Lake Coeur d’Alene was set aside for a reservation by executive order of President Andrew Jackson. Gold discoveries along the north forks of the Coeur d’Alene and Clearwater Rivers in 1868 brought more white miners to the area. Everything was going well for the Catholic mission; but more and more white settlers and miners poured into the region by the day. Interestingly, the priests feared that the bad habits of these migrants could undermine their efforts to bring up the Indians in Christianity. Yet there was little they could do about this. Seeking official recognition by the U.S. government in 1871, the tribe learned of the reservation lands which contained neither the settlement at the Mission nor the tribe’s primary waterways so they refused to accept this land. New reservation boundaries are negotiated and a nearly 600,000 acre reservation that includes Lake Coeur d’Alene but excludes the Mission is created by executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873.

Despite some resistance to the idea, four years later Chief Andrew Seltice and Father Diomedi established a school at Ni’lukhwalqw, or Upper Hangman Creek. An area with good farmland for the growth of the tribe, the move is also an effort to stem white encroachment onto the reservation. Named after Father DeSmet, a new mission within reservation boundaries was established from which the present day Idaho town of DeSmet evolves. Proving to be good neighbors, when the Nez Perce War causes the flight of white settlers from the area; Seltice sends the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart to protect empty homesteads until their return. This same year, Joseph Cataldo became General Superior of the Rocky Mountain Missions and used the old Mission as his headquarters. The following year the mission settlement moves to DeSmet to be inside reservation boundaries and further away from mining roads and white intrusion.

By 1883, Andrew Pritchard’s rich gold strike along the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River was announced and the Northern Pacific rail route north of the Mission was completed, bringing a flood of miners to the area. Within a few years a spur line off the Northern Pacific arrives in the city of Coeur d’Alene and when combined with steamship service to Cataldo Mission fortune seekers can board a small rail line carrying them to the mining districts. In 1889, a tribal agreement with the government expanded on a previous agreement and the Coeur d’Alene tribe gave up more than 180,000 acres of reservation land as well as relinquishing claim to more than 4 million acres of aboriginal territory. Rail service through the reservation began, and two years later, apparently at the urging of Mission leaders, tribal lands are reduced by another 184,000 acres for a payment of $650,000 in a futile attempt to stabilize reservation boundaries. By 1934, the tribe’s holdings shrink to 62,400 acres due to allotment as a result of the Dawes Act.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, railway excursions brought tourists to the Lake Coeur d’Alene area and the old Mission at Cataldo becomes a popular destination. The Jesuits transfer the property over to the Catholic Diocese of Boise in 1924. After gradually falling into disrepair the Mission building undergoes extensive restoration in 1928 followed by additional work in the 1950s. In 1962 it is designated a National Historic Landmark and thirteen years later Old Mission State Park was created.


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