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


Eastern Washington’s first catechists: Faith building on “faith”

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the January 16, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)

An encampment of Flathead Indians. The Flatheads of Montana helped spread the Faith to the Kalispel Tribe in Eastern Washington. (IR photo courtesy of the Spokane Diocese Archives)

In the eastern seaboard of the United States of the 19th century, institutions of learning (primary, secondary and even higher) were becoming established. Catholic bishops were holding meetings in Baltimore which eventually produced the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) and the Baltimore Catechism. But out West, education was much more rudimentary.

In the Territories, where rivers were as unbridled as the locals, the first attempts at education were a fusion of learning the basics (reading, writing and arithmetic) – essential elements for social commerce and communication – and gaining a fundamental understanding of the mysteries of reality. Blending the value of transmitting information and the drawing-out from personal experience an understanding of the fabric of Being itself was a common blend in the Oregon-Washington territories in those days.

The root meaning of education is found in the Latin root of the word, educere – that is, to “lead out.” The educator draws out the person to a consciousness encounter with what constitutes truth and reality.

Nowhere is this dynamic more significant and profoundly formative than in the handing on of a vision of the world which is informed by Faith, particularly the Christian Faith whose testimony is rooted in the hinge of human history, Jesus of Nazareth. Accountability before the Divine is the basic foundation of morality and the multitude of daily decisions which nourish it. Regardless of cultural background or skin color, the men, women and children at the turn of the 19th century in present eastern Washington State were no different from those of today. The human mind strives to touch and to know; the heart yearns for encounter and relationship.

Certainly, when the fur trappers – largely French Canadian and British – ventured into the geographical area of the Northwest in the 1700s and 1800s, they brought with them their own educational backgrounds, both their limited book-learning as well as their vision of faith. A good number of them were Catholics from French Canada. Rarely were any of them trained, formal educators.

The native peoples encountered by these early trappers who roamed the creeks and rivers of what are now the 13 counties of Eastern Washington were not bereft of a sense of the Transcendent. Although in multiple ways, they readily evidenced a sense of a Transcendent Presence identified as “Creator God” or “Great Spirit.” The tribes had a very practical way of “finding God” in all things. Misunderstood, however, their ways often were condemned as God-less and pagan.

“Sauvages” – or “wild beasts,” as a white world would call them – these native people were not. A painful battle championed by the Church in the theological halls of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries had settled that argument. The American “Indians” encountered by the likes of Columbus and the conquistadores were not animals to be tamed and enslaved, but human beings to be converted and blessed by knowledge of the one, true God. Without the threat of enslavement or death, the early trappers were amazingly successful in “wining” the indigenous population to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They had the right priority in understanding human maturation: the curiosity of the heart in precedence over the calculations of the mind. The native mind, like the primordial mind in each of us, first seeks an understanding of a mystery which engages and supports them as caring presence and governance. Call it natural religion.

The early trappers and first settlers brought into this native environment what they themselves knew and that in which they themselves had been formed. That included the theological prejudices of Catholicism and other Christian denominations. Primary among them was the need for the Church and its sacrament of Baptism for salvation. In bringing the native population to salvation, ecumenical collaboration was far from the norm. Wherever the journey took them, denominations vied in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways – even among the trappers and settlers themselves – to gain souls for Christ, measured by the number of baptisms performed. A rugged frontier mentality supported a fundamentalist interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

Once exposed to the religion of the White Man, the natives sought more education – not so much a classroom presentation of the Faith, but a breaking open of its mystery and power. The “Blackrobes” were sought out by delegations sent to St. Louis and other places. And even while they waited for the men of the cloth to come, the natives took their own hand at handing on the faith through memorized prayer, catechetical instruction, and religious practices. Among the Kalispels near present day Newport, Wash., for example, the early missionary priests were surprised to discover that the Faith was already known and accepted – taught them by their cousin tribesmen, the Flatheads in Montana. Later, Chief Spokane Garry himself was known to spread Christianity among his people.

That means that when the creation of the original Diocese of Walla Walla brought Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet to the Oregon-Washington territories, he and his band did not introduce the Catholic faith to the area; its roots already had been planted. Earlier in the 19th century the Jesuits had established footholds among the First Americans in the area of Montana and southern Canada. Both Catholic and Protestant denominations had established missions along the Willamette River in the Oregon Territories. Protestant missionaries had arrived under assignment from a Board of Missions which determined placements and funding. Catholics were far less organized until the creation of apostolic vicariates and dioceses held sway.

In the early years, the presence of the Jesuit missionary was ubiquitous. The secular Catholic missionaries – Fathers Modeste Demers and Francis Norbert Blanchet, and the several others who were to follow in their footsteps – also made incursions into what is now the Diocese of Spokane, baptizing and teaching as they traveled.

As trapping excursions morphed into settlements of French and British citizenry, the teaching and catechetical ministry was conducted in an atmosphere of competition and damaging prejudice. Anti-Catholicism was rampant among the population and even in the local press. Such was the atmosphere when Blanchet arrived to take over his new Diocese of Walla Walla. The Protestants were here first. Foremost among them in 1836 was the team of Presbyterians: Whitman-Spalding-Eells. The Whitmans set up their mission at Walla Walla; the Spaldings, at Clarkston; and the Eells, near Springdale. All that territory – and more – was under the umbrella of the newly ordained Catholic bishop. He was not welcomed warmly and his continuing efforts at collaboration and planning were rebuffed.

Catholic missionaries were rather consistent in their approach to teaching the Faith. With the use of their Sahale Stick, and Catholic Ladder, they brought a genuine Catholic vision of creation, salvation and redemption. Among the Protestant denominations, however, there often were differences in style and even content. The difference seems to have had ramifications and unintended consequences. For instance, at the mission at Lapwai (Clarkston) Rev. Spalding instructed the Indian chiefs apart from the general native population. The chiefs then were entrusted to pass on their knowledge to the rest of the tribe, which they did faithfully. At Waiilatpu (Walla Walla), Rev. Whitman taught religion to an amalgamation of both chiefs and natives, profoundly fragmenting an ancient social structure. Some authors surmise that the resultant anger added fuel to an already contentious situation which motivated a band of locals to turn viciously against the mission, and the Whitmans in particular.

Catholic missionaries were very much aware of their competition for allegiance to the Faith. They, like their Protestant brothers, carried with them the doctrinal battles and practices of religiosity whose origin dated back centuries, to their forum in the days of the Reformation. Focusing on what educators now call the “whole person,” Catholicism seemed to gain a lasting foothold. Moreover, Catholicism’s sacramental system and rituals addressed more readily than mere catechetical instruction the fundamental dynamics found in the mystery of human existence. Some authors observe that the primordial-sounding Latin language used in those sacraments and ritual struck resonant chords among the indigenous peoples.

Historically speaking, it would not be long before initial missionary efforts and attempts to hand on the Faith blossomed into to a more established, institutional presence. It would not be long before there were schools, academies and hospitals in the See City of Walla Walla, and then Spokane. The discovery of gold in the hills of the Northwest hastened the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Church, and its catechetical ministry was opening with unexpected speed.


Early catechetical efforts utilized unique tools

In a brief course of time two catechetical tools proved to be unexpectedly useful to early Catholic missionaries in the transmission of the Faith.

The first was a square stick which the First Americans quickly named the Sahale Stick – literally, “stick from above.” With a variety of notches on the sides of the stick, the 40 centuries before Christ were represented; the 33 years of Jesus’ ministry were followed by a cross; the centuries up to the present were designated by yet other indentations. Likewise, in showing the beginning of the world, the time of creation, the fall of the angels, the coming of the Savior (birth, death and resurrection) and the mission of the apostles, the Sahale Stick proved to be an effective instrument of evangelization. After a period of instruction regarding how to use the Stick as a catechetical tool, and after learning a few basic Catholic hymns and prayers, the native populations were equipped to share substantially in the catechetical ministry of the Church.

As itinerate missionary efforts transformed more into established, local communities of faith – precursors to parishes – the use of the Sahale Stick morphed into the employment of a large chart which depicted the great epochs of the world such as Noah’s Flood, the tower of Babel, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and other scenes from salvation history. The chart came to be known as the “Catholic Ladder” (pictured above) and remained in use for decades. The custody of the ladder was entrusted to a member of the community who, for all practical purposes, became the local catechist. Given the intermittent visits paid by the priest for the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church, the use of the ladder anchored the people in their Catholic Faith. (Interestingly, the Ladder often depicted the mutual prejudice which existed between Catholics and Protestants. More detailed versions of the chart would show one or the other’s denomination on the way to perdition.)

Both the Sahale Stick and the Catholic Ladder pre-dated the publication of the Baltimore Catechism, which later would be the classroom norm for memorizing and learning the tenants of the Catholic Faith.


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