Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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

Spokane Diocese’s centennial recalls joys, sacrifices of pioneers and missionaries

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the December 19, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

From left: Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet, Diocese of Nesqually, Wash; Archbishop Norbert Blanchet, Archdiocese of Oregon City, Ore.; and Bishop Modeste Demers, Diocese of Vancouver Island. (IR photo courtesy of the Spokane Diocese Archives)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles written for the Inland Register to mark the diocese’s centennial year. It is based on information found in the diocese’s centennial publication, Children of the Sun.)

At a nondescript moment in time on the 17th day of December 1913, Pope Pius X sat at a desk sequestered in a Vatican office and signed a papal bull (decree) which established a new diocese in the northwestern corner of the United States. Thereby the Diocese of Seattle (formerly Nesqually) relinquished oversight of 16 counties in the eastern part of the State of Washington to the “Church at Spokane.” Given the limitations of communication at the time, it would be months before the people and clergy in the new See city of Spokane would hear the news.

Later, on March 18, 1914, the same pontiff appointed the Most Rev. A.F. Schinner, a retired bishop from Superior, Wis., to be the first chief shepherd of the new diocese. The man had dreamed of being a simple missionary, but not in the fashion presented him. Despite ailing health, he packed his bags and took the train west to live among his new ecclesiastical family. He was installed as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Spokane on April 18, 1914, just weeks before the beginning of World War I. Reportedly, the celebration was extravagant.

Spokane was ready for the announcement. After all, the meld of railroad, agricultural and mining industries had given rise to a major city, Spokane Falls, on the banks of the Spokane River. Its buildings graced some of the very places where the native peoples had fished for salmon for generations. For the populace, the creation of the Diocese of Spokane was not a surprise. In their thinking, it was but a matter of time before Mother Church saw the wisdom of creating a diocese in that part of the state, with Spokane as its See city. The faithful even had anticipated such a day when they constructed the third Our Lady of Lourdes Church (dedicated in 1908), using bricks from its predecessor on Main and Bernard Streets which had survived the Great Spokane Fire of 1889. The church was designed and built with “cathedral” in mind.

The creation of a new diocese was a response to obvious growth and necessity. An objective study of the needs of the Catholic faithful in Eastern Washington at the time dictated the need for a more local expression of the Universal Church. The Catholic Church in the United States was expanding in the west and authorities could see the hand writing on the wall. The city of Spokane, the largest population center between Minneapolis and Seattle, formed what would later come to be known as the Great Inland Empire. The area held immense promise.

That growth would continue, and in 1951 both the Seattle and Spokane dioceses lost geographical territory to the creation of a new diocese between the two: the Diocese of Yakima. Spokane would give up three of its original 16 counties.

St. Paul Mission, near Kettle Falls, is pictured in 1887. (IR photo courtesy of the Spokane Diocese Archives)

The remaining 13 counties form a cluster bordered by Canada to the north, Idaho to the east, Oregon to the south, and (largely determined by geology) by the flow of the Columbia River to the West.

The presence of the Catholic Faith did not come to Eastern Washington with the erection of the Diocese of Spokane. That ecclesial act was the official solidification of the efforts of hundreds of the faithful who preceded it. Decades of faith development had led to such a glorious moment. Attempting to establish the presence of the Church in this part of the nation depends on how the researcher may understand the mystery of grace and the sovereign work of God. If one accepts that every person is a son or daughter of God, created in his image and likeness, then “Church” in the Northwest already found a silhouette in the native people who roamed and occupied the mountains, hills and plains of what became legally identified as the State of Washington in 1889. The hearts of those early occupiers of the land responded to a sacred presence in themselves and in the expanse of nature which embraced them. The very name of one of those tribes, the Spokanes, bore a name which identified them as “children of the sun.” The name has become our own.

Such an understanding of God’s presence and the call of people into the embrace of his saving love is absorbed, but not negated, by a more focused understanding of the reality of Church as those people who have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, believe in him, and seek to follow him. A more specific Christ-centered reality of Church arrived in this area, then, with those brave souls who traversed the area in hunting and trapping expeditions, most sponsored by the Hudson Bay and Northwest Companies. History shows that these very folks were the first teachers of the native peoples about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they were the first ones who, separated especially from the Eucharist and education in the Faith, sought a more formal presence of the Church to nurture, lead and guide them. Perhaps the competition of encroaching Protestant missions gave urgency to the appeals they made in the 1830s to Church officials, especially those in charge of established Canadian missions in Red River and Quebec to send priests to the rescue.

Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet (IR photo courtesy of the Spokane Diocese Archives)

Such pleas brought to the area men who now are historical icons. First came Fathers Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers. Surviving a canoe tragedy (12 men lost), these two arrived at the now-submerged Kettle Falls on Nov. 6, 1838, where the continental government had located Fort Colville. They were greeted warmly by trappers and natives alike. Very shortly they celebrated the first Mass in the State of Washington. It would not be until 1845 before a permanent mission (St. Paul) would be established there by the Jesuits.

Fathers Blanchet and Demers continued on their voyage to the Fort Okanogan area and then to Fort Walla Walla, near Waiilatpu, where Marcus Whitman and his wife had established a Presbyterian mission (1838). The two priests spent several months traversing the territory – preaching, teaching, and baptizing. Eventually they established bases at St. Francis Xavier Mission near Toledo, Wash., and St. Paul Mission, near what is now Salem, Ore.

A few years later the renowned Blackrobe missionary, Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet, entered the picture. Having set up base camp, as it were, in parts of what is now Montana, his need for grain seed brought him to Fort Colville, where he was surprised to find an already-existent knowledge of the Catholic Faith which had been preserved and passed on to the locals by the Flathead Indians. From there his travels took him to Okanogan and Walla Walla, where he met Fathers Demers and Blanchet, and then to the Spokane and north-Idaho area. With mutual agreement, Fathers Demers and Blanchet had given him the task of soliciting financial support and missionary personnel from his native Belgium. The American College at Louvain would prove to be a storehouse of priest missionaries for the Church in the Northwest during its growing years. Father DeSmet also was given the task of convincing various bishops in the States and Canada to support the idea of establishing an episcopal See in the Oregon Territories (as they were called at that time), and then getting Rome to actually do it.

The bishops of Quebec and St. Louis were particularly receptive. Father DeSmet was to be denied headship over the Church in the territories, but on Dec. 1, 1843, Father Blanchet was named head of apostolic vicariate established for the area. He boldly proposed the establishment of an archdiocese with seven suffrage dioceses, including Nesqually (later Vancouver, Wash.), Walla Walla, and Colville. The proposal only met with partial success: On July 24, 1846, Pope Gregory XVI created the Archdiocese of Oregon City (later to transfer to Portland), Victoria (on Vancouver Island) and the Diocese of Walla Walla near the convergence of the Walla Walla River and the Columbia River. The first bishop of the Diocese of Walla Walla was to be Augustin Magliore Alexandre Blanchet, the younger missionary-brother of Father Francis Norbert Blanchet. Father Demeers was appointed bishop of Victoria.

In March 1847, Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet set out from Quebec to take charge of his diocese. Traveling through St. Louis, where he picked up three seminarians, he traversed the Oregon Trail and arrived at Fort Vancouver at the time of the Whitman Massacre, which included the murder of Protestant missionaries Dr. and Mrs. Whitman, along with several family members and associates. The Catholics would be accused of stirring up the trouble; it would take years for exoneration.

One of A.M.A. Blanchet’s band, Oblate Charles Pandosy, was ordained to the priesthood at Fort Vancouver shortly after the massacre. His was the first ordination in the Diocese of Walla Walla (and therefore, Spokane).

The Indian Wars which resulted from the Whitman Massacre created a dangerous environment for missionary work. Moreover, the lack of Catholics in the Walla Walla area and an inadequate supply of financial support pointed the Church to move the diocesan operations to Nesqually (and later to Seattle). The ecclesiastical future of the Diocese of Walla Walla had come to a dead end. It remains a “titular diocese” – a diocese in name only. The focus of the Church’s attention had turned to the burgeoning port cities of the West Coast. In time, however, given the increasing population and stability of a city hundreds of miles east of it, Church officials gradually became aware that the land beyond the looming Cascades required its own ecclesial identity and independent shepherding. And thus, by a colorful and mysterious inter-twining of history, the Diocese of Spokane came to be – Dec. 17, 1913.

(Post script: Interestingly, a near drowning incident involving the Blanchet brothers (then in their teens) would have changed the history of the Church in the Northwest. When the two siblings were still at home, they nearly lost their lives to a swollen river which they had to traverse to attend school. The incident led their parents to enroll them at a boarding school in Quebec, despite the added expense.)

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