Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Omak churches offer rich history lessons for Catholic community

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, for the Inland Register

(From the June 10, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Jesuit Father Jake Morton is serving his second go-round as pastor of four churches on the Colville Indian Reservation. The churches are St. Joseph in East Omak, with St. Mary Mission (the focus of this article), St. Rose of Lima in Keller, and Sacred Heart in Nespelem.

Previously, Father Morton served 12 years on the reservation, from 1976-1988. St. Michael Church in Inchelium was added to his parish roster just recently, making him pastor of all the churches on the Reservation.

Father Morton is part of a long tradition of Jesuit service to the Indians, which began in the late 1800s. Jesuit Father Etienne de Rouge, one of the early Jesuit missionary priests who came to the area in 1885, built St. Mary Mission, starting in 1909. Even though the church was not quite finished, it was formally opened in October 1910. That year was Father de Rouge’s 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, and also the number of years he had been working with the Colvilles, since he came to them right after he was ordained a priest.

Father de Rouge’s primary concern, however, was to provide education for the Indian children, so first he built a school. At that time the government was forcibly removing Indian children from their families, to take the children to boarding schools elsewhere, sometimes out of state. Father de Rouge wanted to stop that from happening, so he scraped, begged and borrowed to build a school. He often had to borrow clothes to wear but he was able to get a school in operation.

Neither did the Indians want to send their children to the government schools. They helped the priest as much as they could. At first, some were reluctant to give, but when they saw Father de Rouge was serious and would not be deterred, they began to help him.

Father de Rouge soon realized he needed a boarding school. Parents often would bring their children and stay the winter since there was nowhere else for the children to stay. So he scraped together some more money and added another room to be used as a dormitory. A boarding school for the girls came a couple of years later.

Funds began arriving from various sources. One of the priest’s special benefactors was a future saint, Katherine Drexel. St. Katherine was heiress to the Drexel banking fortune. She gave away millions of dollars during her life in support of Catholic programs for Indians and African Americans. She sent quarterly donations, up to $1,500, to St. Mary Mission for 37 years, and made a personal visit to the school in 1935 when she was 76 years old. The money she sent helped build the church and the girls’ school.

For many years, the school was the only boarding school for Indians in Washington State. The Colville Federated Tribes took over the school’s operation in 1973 and it was renamed for Paschal Sherman, the third student to graduate from the school. He went on to college and became an attorney who worked for Indian rights.

Soon there will be a new Paschal Sherman School. Construction on a new facility is currently underway on property to the east, with an expected opening date sometime in late fall. When there are church events, students will be bused over, since it will no longer be within walking distance. Wendell George, a parishioner and member of the school’s board, said they are very proud of the school and think it will make a big difference in the lives of their students. “It’s been 20 years in the making,” he said.

St. Mary Mission, Omak, Wash.

Right now, though, St. Mary Mission (right) sits in the middle of the current school campus, a grey stucco structure with a new dark brown metal roof and 80-foot-steeple.

To enter St. Mary Mission is to go back in time. Father Morton said that except for the carpet in the sanctuary and some added art work and altar furnishings, the church looks pretty much as it did in the time of Father de Rouge. A wall-to-ceiling case in the church foyer holds historical photos of the church and school, and examples of bead and basket work.

There is an ornate back altar and two side altars with spires and other decorative wood trim from France. The priest came from a well-to-do family there (he gave up the title of Count to become a Jesuit) and he received donations of furnishings when he built the church. There are statues on the back altar; the most prominent is that of the Sacred Heart. On either side of the back altar are statues of angels holding electric lamps. Since the angel statues are old, Father Morton speculated that the lamps might have been updated to accommodate electricity.

The left side altar features a statue of Mary, while a statue of St. Joseph stands on the right side altar. Not far from Mary’s altar is a statue of Father de Rouge baptizing an Indian. It had formerly been located outside the church on the school grounds. On the south side of the church is a statue of St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary.

The front altar, built by a local craftsman, is covered with a blanket that has an Indian pattern to the weave. The lectern also has a brightly patterned cover. There are two banners on either side of the sanctuary — one of a buffalo and the other, an eagle. There is a painting of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha on the north wall.

The most striking feature in the church, though, is a life-size, realistically colored statue depicting Christ in the tomb, which lies horizontally on a bier under the back altar directly under the tabernacle. Father Morton said it had been covered for many years with a white cloth and finally a decision was made to remove the cloth and bring the work into view.

Of the many buildings on the school campus, the church is about the only one that did not catch fire and burn down. Nearly all the others, including a museum with an extensive collection of local flora, fauna and other historical items collected and assembled by Father de Rouge, were destroyed by fire at various points in the mission’s early history.

St. Joseph Church, Omak

St. Joseph Church, Omak

St. Joseph Church, which had once been a store, is a complete opposite of St. Mary Mission in size and looks. It was started in 1945 as a mission of St. Mary, a reverse of the current arrangement. Jesuit Father Joe Balph was the priest in charge when the building was remodeled and enlarged.

The church is small; the interior, simple. The tabernacle is built into the back wall of the sanctuary. A statue of the Infant of Prague stands on a small table on the right-hand side. A plaque featuring a huge rosary hangs on the south wall. The plaque is dedicated in memory of the late Rena Pichette, the parish’s first Eucharistic minister, and Father Morton said she loved to sing.

A painting hangs on the left side of the sanctuary, placed there by Jesuit Father Charles Peterson, a former pastor. There is a beautiful Piéta in the entryway.

An Hispanic Jesuit novice helping out in the parish built a large plain wooden cross to stand in the sanctuary for Lent. The cross remains there, decorated with flowers and draped with a long white cloth for Easter. Jesuit novices help out in the churches from time to time. Jesuit Volunteers also come each year to work at the school.

An attached room on the north side of the church is the fellowship hall, a bright colorful space with kitchen, which can also be used for an overflow crowd. The room, called the Annex, was added on by Jesuit Father Joe Obersinner. Community groups also hold meetings in the Annex.

St. Joseph and St. Mary Mission are located in the northwest part of the Colville Reservation. Mass is celebrated at St. Mary on the first and second Sundays of the month and then at St. Joseph on the other Sundays. A Communion Service is held on the fourth Sunday. People travel between the two churches for their Sunday worship, but only from April through October. Because St. Mary Mission is out of the city on a winding, part-gravel road, it is closed during the winter. Father Morton said they celebrate Christmas Mass in the old church, however.

Many non-Natives, as they are called, also come to Mass on the Reservation. Father Morton said that with all the Native Americans and non-Natives the parish counts about 500 families. Sharing parish duties with Father Morton are Jesuit Father Bob Jones and Jesuit Brother Fred Mercy. The three men live in a house near St. Joseph Church.

Alice Irey is the daughter of one of the early Native American founding families of the school and St. Mary Mission. Her mother and father, Pauline and John Zacherle, helped Father de Rouge in the mission’s early years. “They came when they heard about the mission,” she said. “They were among the first ones to come.” Pauline was a teacher and cook who also played the organ. John did construction and maintenance work — he helped build the church. Irey has many memories of those earlier times.

She said in the old days, the men sat on one side of the church and the women on the other. She remembered how the Sisters would pick huckleberries. She recalled a “policeman” at the church who would not let whites attend services until finally the Indians had to ask him to quit. “I couldn’t understand why not,” she said. “We grew up together and we lived as neighbors.”

They still do. According to long-time parishioner Elaine Moomaw, who’s also a member of the parish’s music ministry, the parish “has a wonderful, caring spirit,” looking out for others in the parish community who are in need.

According to Father Morton, they are good singers, too. “We have wonderful music; people here love to sing,” he said.

Bertha Matt, another long-time parishioner, said much the same. Another way the parish reaches out is to bring Communion to those who are sick and homebound. “I really appreciated it when I couldn’t get to Mass,” she said. She was a member of a rosary prayer group, which she said would be starting again soon.

Wendell George is very involved in his parish and community. George is a Eucharistic Minister and leads the monthly Communion Service in rotation with five other Eucharistic Ministers. They were trained for their ministry by the Kateri Northwest Ministry Insitute, an organization that educates and forms Indian laity to serve the Church.


Early missionary to Omak area overcame opposition with dedication

Father de Rouge faced opposition when he first arrived, as some unfriendly Indian chiefs – one of them Chief Joseph – debated whether to let him stay or get rid of him. They spent considerable effort, all of it unsuccessful, to drive him out. While they debated the matter, Father de Rouge saved a child from drowning in the Okanogan River. That settled it; the chiefs let him stay.

Father de Rouge himself nearly drowned as he disembarked a ferry on a trip around the reservation. He traveled with a secretary named John Cleveland who told the story afterward. The slip jerked as the priest was getting off the craft and he was pitched into the river. First his hat came up; then he did. Cleveland said he grabbed Father deRouge by the collar but the priest and his now-soaked clothes were too heavy and some other men came to help. As Cleveland recalled later, when they finally got Father de Rouge out of the water, he still had his pipe clenched between his teeth.

In his efforts to get teachers for the girls, Father de Rouge started the Ladies’ Cathechist Missionaries in 1905. According to an article in the archives written in 1987 by Carol Burroughs, Father de Rouge was not allowed to ask any order of nuns to help him; he did not have any resources to give them. On his own he recruited young women to help with the little children, the girls, the housekeeping and other chores. These women took only private vows and also wore habits, and Father de Rouge, who was their Superior, wrote a lengthy Rule for them. However, they were never officially recognized by the Church.

There was much confusion about their role; many of them thought they would become nuns. The Madames, as they were called after the French title for nuns, worked very hard, suffering great hardships and deprivation (as did Father de Rouge) and many of them left because of it. Several wrote letters to Bishop Augustine Schinner, saying they had been misled by Father de Rouge. There were never more than about 10 Madames on the Reservation at any one time. Their average age was about 30, and they served on the Reservation from 1908-1936. St. Katherine Drexel supported the Lady Catechists all the years they served at the mission.


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