VANCOUVER – I never thought a transit agency would give the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater a new platform to tell the story of our beloved pioneer priests and the mostly forgotten Diocese of Nesqually.
After all, when Fathers F.N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers arrived on the banks of the Columbia River and made their way to Fort Vancouver in November 1838, they hardly could have imaged that their accomplishments would be chronicled on windscreens and medallions at a bus stop some 178 years later.
Traveling by horseback and canoe, the priests brought Catholicism to French-Canadian workers at the Hudson’s Bay Company and former fur trappers living on the Cowlitz Prairie near present-day Toledo, Washington. The missionaries were on fire to bring Jesus Christ to Native Americans, not to dream about future means of transportation.
Artist Robert Tully’s designs for windscreens at the new C-Tran bus stop are based on the stained-glass windows inside the adjacent Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver. Tully placed historic photos inside the diamonds to help tell the story of missionary Fathers F.N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers. Other panes highlight Mother Joseph’s legacy. Photo: Janet Cleaveland
But now their legacy is literally cemented into 12th and Washington streets in downtown Vancouver, at a C-Tran stop right alongside the proto-cathedral.
About six years ago, C-Tran, the bus agency for Clark County, began working on The Vine, a $53 million rapid-bus system for a busy 6-mile stretch from Vancouver Mall to downtown Vancouver. Public art — mostly evident in the windscreens at each curbside station — was designed with the neighbors in mind.
“A real effort was made all along the corridor to look at the settings and make sure they reflected the character of each place,” said Christine Selk, communication and public affairs manager for C-Tran.
As a member of the proto-cathedral’s historical society, my role was to help C-Tran and artists Robert Tully and Roberto Delgado obtain relevant images from the Archdiocese of Seattle and Sisters of Providence archives. We sought historic photos that detailed the accomplishments of the founding bishops, as well as Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and subsequent Bishops Aegidius Junger and Edward J. O’Dea.
Some parishioners, including me, saw the bus stop as a blemish on the sight lines and beautiful landscaping along Washington Street, with its rhododendrons and pathways leading to the church’s east entrance. C-Tran’s plan included kiosks to sell tickets, real-time rider information and platforms that could accommodate the 60-foot articulated buses. We thought the stop should be placed a block south.
But Marianne Russell, outgoing president of the proto-cathedral’s historical society, finds a bright side now that she has seen the result.
“I see it as a teaching tool for people waiting there,” she said, “not a complete tool, but a start.”
Tully designed the windscreens for each of the 34 stations. On a May 2015 trip to Vancouver, he took photos of the soaring stained-glass windows inside the proto-cathedral. They inspired his artistic — and educational — concept for the screens.
“I knew I did not want art that looked like a museum display with historic photos and text because it wouldn’t really be art then,” Tully wrote in an email. “The color and structure of the windows were great, and the feeling and realization that something from inside the church was coming outdoors is the artistic basis,” he said. “I found I could insert historic details without disturbing the art vision. Adding knowledge of history to a community is an added plus.”
The windows, integral to the Gothic Revival architecture of the church, are English in style, composed of pattern and symbol. Tully’s idea was to place 11 historical illustrations into the diamonds of the stained-glass images, starting with founding Fathers Blanchet and Demers and including Mother Joseph.
Likewise, Delgado helped tell the story of the short-lived Diocese of Nesqually, precursor to the Archdiocese of Seattle. He designed five medallions, each about 3 feet in diameter, that are set into the sidewalk with diamond-shaped brick borders, akin to the piazza on the church’s west side where the parish hosts an annual picnic and social events. The proto-cathedral stop is the only one with medallions set into its platform.
The history of the Catholic Church in what is now Western Washington is honored with five sidewalk medallions at a new C-Tran bus stop outside the Proto-cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver. In this medallion, artist Roberto Delgado featured Archbishop F.N. Blanchet of Oregon City; Bishops A.M.A. Blanchet, Edward J. O’Dea and Aegidius Junger, all of the Diocese of Nesqually (now the Archdiocese of Seattle); and missionary Father Modeste Demers, who later became bishop of Vancouver Island. Photo: Janet Cleaveland
The medallions include images of F.N. Blanchet as archbishop of Oregon City and the three bishops of Nesqually — A.M.A. Blanchet, Junger and O’Dea. Other medallions depict the interior of the proto-cathedral; the legacy of Mother Joseph; and services the nuns provided schoolchildren, orphans and the infirm.
The project is “a good way to educate the community,” said Dan Wyatt, a proto-cathedral parishioner and historical society member who helped choose the artists in his role as a member of the Clark County Arts Commission.
“C-Tran always wanted to make sure it did right by the proto-cathedral,” Wyatt said. “They always seemed sensitive to the needs of St. James. Dropping people off by the church,” he said, “it’s not a bad thing.”
I’m on board with that.
Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.