Oct. 27 Mass will celebrate historic designation
By Janet Cleaveland
For some parishioners, St. James Church never really lost its title of cathedral. Certainly, they recognized that Bishop Edward J. O’Dea, third bishop of the Diocese of Nesqually, had officially moved the see to Seattle in 1907, and then built St. James Cathedral on First Hill. But in the hearts of some Vancouver parishioners, theirs was the mother church, forever the landmark cathedral for the birthplace of Catholicism in the Northwest.
St. James in Vancouver will be designated a proto-cathedral Oct. 27. The cathedral was built under the direction of Aegidius Junger, second bishop of Nesqually. The cornerstone was placed July 27, 1884, on the feast of St. James the Apostle. The cathedral was completed in 1885.
That’s what Pat Maser of Vancouver thinks about St. James, where she has been a parishioner for all of her 83 years. Her parents were married in St. James, and she was baptized, confirmed and married there, too.
"We went to St. James when it was the only church in Vancouver, before they built the others," Maser said. "Many old-time parishioners thought of it as the cathedral."
Now Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, recognizing the spiritual and historic significance of Vancouver’s St. James, will celebrate a Mass designating the church as the proto-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Seattle at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27. A proto-cathedral is a parish church that formerly had the bishop's chair.
When Father W.R. Harris was assigned to the Vancouver parish, he saw that the beauty and history of the church needed to be preserved. He saw a place for traditional music and liturgy that were in harmony with the building. And with Archbishop Sartain's encouragement, he found a way to link St. James to its powerful past.
"One of ways we can do it is by calling it what it is: a proto-cathedral. It should be referred to as Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater," said Father Harris, pastor of St. James since July 2012. "So much history is here, and so much of that history is tied to our faith."
Indeed. In 1838, Fathers Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers arrived at Fort Vancouver, where Mass was celebrated Nov. 25 at a church inside the stockade . The priests came from Montreal after French Canadian Catholics, who settled on the Cowlitz Prairie and in the Willamette Valley, wrote letters to the bishop in Quebec.
St. James Church was built outside the fort in 1846. Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Nesqually in 1850 and separated it from the Archdiocese of Oregon City. The pope named the A.M.A. Blanchet, brother to Francis Norbert Blanchet, as the first bishop of Nesqually. That first cathedral burned down in 1889, probably the work of an arsonist. But the cathedral in its present-day location in downtown Vancouver had already been built under the direction of Aegidius Junger, second bishop of Nesqually. It was dedicated Nov. 1, 1885.
And what a beauty St. James was.
It soared like a Gothic cathedral, pointing pilgrims toward heaven with its stained-glass windows and vaulted-rib ceiling. Mother Joseph, superior of the Sisters of Charity of Providence and powerhouse for building schools, orphanages and hospitals, may have been involved in fundraising and, according to one historian, "embellishments" for the cathedral. The altar was carved in Belgium and shipped around the tip of South America. The brick came from the local Hidden Brickyard. Cut stone was from Camas; Stations of the Cross also from Belgium; and stained-glass windows from San Francisco.
Though its original plans apparently have been lost, Victoria Ransom, a now-deceased parishioner who wrote about the church in 1974 for a publication of the Fort Vancouver Historical Society, said the plans came from Belgium. Bishop Blanchet had made trips to Europe, in particular to Belgium.
"The purity of the Gothic structure was not a hallmark of American architects of that time, especially those found in the west, unless they studied in Europe. There is supposed to be a church in Belgium which is an exact duplicate of St. James with the exception of the spires. The Belgian church has them, St. James does not," Ransom wrote. She suggests that St. James ran short of money during construction.
Ransom was among those indignant that Vancouver had lost out to Seattle as the seat of the diocese. But she was instrumental in preserving and recording the history of St. James and in establishing the now-defunct St. James Historical Society in the 1980s during the centennial marking the cathedral's construction.
Donna Quesnell, who worked with Ransom, thinks that calling St. James the proto-cathedral will go a long way toward erasing past grumblings.
"People had never quite forgiven Seattle for that, but in the end Bishop O'Dea was right. Seattle was built up," Quesnell said. "People would say the only reason it was built up was because of the Gold Rush, but there was more to it."
St. James isn't the only proto-cathedral in the United States. The Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardsville, Ky., and St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral Parish in San Jose, Calif., also have been so designated.
Robert Carriker, longtime history professor at Gonzaga University, said St. James Cathedral brought stability to a diocese established on an unsettled frontier.
He noted in an email that despite having to rely on Jesuit and Oblate missionary priests more beholden to their superiors than to Bishop Blanchet, the Diocese of Nesqually grew in stature and accomplishment during its brief tenure. By 1907, Carriker wrote, "St. James was headquarters for 42 parishes with resident pastors and 42,000 Catholics .
"Designating St. James a proto-cathedral in 2013 reminds all Catholics in Washington state of the historic debt owed to the religious men and women who came from Canada, America and Europe to bring instruction, schools and hospitals to the Pacific Northwest."
September 27, 2013