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

Keller, Nespelem parishes: geographic separation overcome by common bonds

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, for the Inland Register

(From the July 29, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

A distance of some 32 miles separates the two parishes at Keller and Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation. Despite the separation, the two parishes have many things in common, including their pastor, Jesuit Father Jake Morton, assisted by Jesuit Father Bob Jones.

Both had been pastors on the Reservation once before, Father Morton in the mid-1970s and Father Jones in the early 1970s.

Both parish communities are primarily Native American. Both have small statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of their churches, given to the parishes by a benefactor in the Midwest who was interested in promoting that devotion. And both parishes host special celebrations for Corpus Christi – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. But there are differences as well.

St. Rose of Lima Church, Keller, Wash. The church at Keller (right), the smaller of the two, is named for St. Rose of Lima. Les Herman is 71 years old, one of the elders of the San Poil band of Colville Indians and a long-time member of the church. He said the church is older than he is and recalled that the church building had been moved twice. The first time was when Grand Coulee Dam was built and the backed-up water flooded the land behind it. The second move, to its present location, took place when it was discovered that the church was located partly on some private property.

The church building was once a never-used school. Chief Jim James, the last chief of the San Poil band of Colville Indians, made a home in one of the buildings that was part of the school complex. Herman recalled that Chief James was very devout and often rode the Reservation to visit his people and remind them to gather on Sundays. A painted portrait of James hangs in the large log building next door to the church. This long house-like building, with its big windows, fireplace and bright kitchen, is now the fellowship hall and community center for parishioners and the tribe.

The church is a small, white, wooden frame structure. With the fellowship center, it is located north of Keller in a quiet spot near some pine trees just off the highway. An attractively designed sign painted by parishioner and convert LaVona Peabody stands on the highway to mark the turn to the church.

A blanket with a Native American pattern hangs on the back wall of the sanctuary and a crucifix hangs in the center of the blanket. Near the altar is the processional cross, carved about six years ago by Peabody, a professional artist – “my first carving,” she said. The design features a wolf for strength, an eagle for devotion to its family, and a sun denoting the warmth and growth of nature behind Christ’s head on the cross. The altar is made of pine. The legs were formed by Herman from huge pine stumps; the top of the altar is a pine slab. There is also an icon of St. Rose of Lima in the church.

An entry cover was installed over the front door a couple of years ago and the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe just fits underneath it.

Parishioners have deep feelings about “their little church,” said Barbara Herman, wife of Les. “They talk about it being ‘my church when I was little,’” she said. Barbara Herman likes the intimacy of the church’s small size and describes the community as family.

Peabody likes small size, too, and how, when there’s a need, people “just take care of it.”

Marshall Pooler is an acolyte at St. Rose of Lima and assists Father Morton with various parish needs. Pooler returned to live on the Reservation about 10 years ago. He is religious education coordinator and a contact person for the parish. He is also a representative for Catholic Charities in the community. People call him when there is an urgent need for food, fuel or other emergency assistance.

Pooler likes how the Native American culture is incorporated into the services at his parish. “It seems more alive,” he said. Another thing he likes is its inclusiveness. “Even if someone isn’t here very long, we can include them,” he said. “We are all part of the body of Christ.”

The parish has had several pastors in the last few years. Attendance has lagged a bit, with Masses scheduled at different times. Currently Mass is offered on Saturday afternoons at four. A Communion service is held on the fourth Sunday of the month at 11 a.m. Fathers Morton and Jones life in Omak with Jesuit Brother Fred Mercy. They put many miles on their rigs each month as they make their rounds between churches. The road from Keller to Nespelem winds north and west through the mountains, a very scenic drive but treacherous in winter’s snow and ice.

Sacred Heart Church, Nespelem, Wash. The neighborhood surrounding the much larger Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nespelem is quiet on a sunny spring afternoon except for a noisy rooster that doesn’t know it should crow only in the early morning hours. The church is situated just below the crest of a hill, below the historic cemetery where Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe is buried.

The original Sacred Heart Church was built on top of the hill on the other side of the cemetery. The remains of its stone foundation can still be seen. Jesuit Father Edward Griva built this first church in 1915, one of 46 he is credited with building. He did most of the labor on the Nespelem church himself. As often happens in old buildings heated with wood stoves, the structure caught fire and burned down in 1948.

The property below the hill had been a lumberyard. Parishioners remodeled a residence on the property to function as a church. The structure included a small apartment for the priest.

The new church was built on that same property in 1964. The old structures were torn down in 1970-71.

The parish celebrated its 40th anniversary in March. A special guest was Jesuit Father Gordon Keys, now of Spokane, who was pastor when the church was built. Special plaques of appreciation were given to him and to Mary Milla of Spokane, who helped organize parish records and other paperwork.

The church is made of white stone blocks. An upper exterior portion of the church is wood painted brown and features a cross. A brightly-colored window in the upper front of the building gives a quiet glow to the interior when the sun shines through. The church has a warm feeling inside with the many different uses of wood for the walls, the pews and the altar. The tabernacle is an oaken box, covered with a leather tipi. The tipi is plain white on one side, has red and blue stripes on the other and is changed depending on the liturgical season.

There are three colorful statues of Joseph, Mary and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, all signed by “Giac. Vin. Mussner of Ortisei, Italy.” All are richly colored and heavily trimmed with gold. Paper banners for the Easter season, made by the parish’s catechism students, brightened the interior. There is a tiled baptismal font on wheels at one side of the sanctuary. Pictures and historical displays from the anniversary party still decorated the walls of the attached parish hall. There is a large apartment on the church’s second floor.

The church was built to hold 200 people; the parish directory lists 250 families. Even so, most funerals and even some weddings are held elsewhere, since there is not enough room for everyone in the church for those events.

The parish has a fund that is used for emergency needs and holds rummage sales twice a year with the leftovers given to the local clothing bank.

Except for a few years in Alaska, Darlene Wilder has lived in Sacred Heart Parish all her life. She currently guides the religious education program with “three or four dozen children.”

She remembered worship in the second church building. She is quietly proud of her life-long membership in the parish, of having been in the church “from the beginning.” She is also quietly proud of her faith and complimented the people in the parish age 52-60 (she is one of them) who worked as volunteers to help build the new church. She said her parents and many of the elders were deeply religious and that’s why “the missionaries succeeded (in their work with the Indians) when traders and trappers didn’t.”


More facts about Keller, Nespelem

• The first Native American deacon in the Spokane Diocese, the late Archie Arnold, came from St. Rose of Lima Parish, and served his diaconate there.
• The Corpus Christi celebration has a long history. Parishioners who wish to remember family members or deceased loved ones build small enclosures with cedar boughs around their church. Prior to Mass, parishioners move in procession to each enclosure. Sometimes at Nespelem, people will bring horses to ride in the procession. The family of the honored person or deceased tells about that person; the enclosure is blessed;songs are sung. The group then processes to the next enclosure. Many times Bishop William Skylstad is the presiding minister for the special occasion; parish children often receive Confirmation-First Eucharist during the Mass.
• A bell tower was built to the side of the church in Nespelem just a few years ago. It is dedicated to Delano Hall, the former mayor of Nespelem who lived across the street from the church and befriended the priests. He converted to Catholicism as an old man. Money he bequeathed to the church funded the bell tower.

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