DEMING – In 1893, missionary priest Father Jean Baptiste Boulet set off from Bellingham on a two-day, 25-mile trek to remote eastern Whatcom County, where he offered Mass for Catholic loggers and farmers and their families.
The 125th anniversary of that journey, and the beginnings of St. Peter Mission in Deming, were commemorated August 25 with a Mass celebrated by St. Peter’s priest administrator, Father Francisco Cancino. Afterward, more than 125 parishioners — many descended from the original members — gathered for a group photo and lunch.
Missionary Father Jean Baptiste Boulet was the first priest who ministered to Catholics in what is now the Deming area of Whatcom County. Photo: courtesy Archdiocese of Seattle Archives #VR820.202
“St. Peter has been the family church for my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents,” said lifelong parishioner Larry Williamson, whose great-grandparents, German immigrants Peter and Anna Zender, were two of the founding members. “To this day, I have cousins and other family members who are part of the parish,” he added.
Many parishioners trace Father Boulet’s route — now the Mount Baker Highway — when they commute to work in Whatcom County’s larger communities, Williamson said.
Father Boulet ministered to Catholic families in the communities of Lynden, Sumas, Columbia Valley and Clipper, initially saying Mass in the homes of various families on a two- to three-month rotation, according to a history on the church website.
He offered the first Mass in the Columbia Valley in a school house on August 23, 1893, for a group of 13 people, and planning got underway for erecting a church in that area. The next day, Father Boulet traveled by foot to the area where the current St. Peter’s is, and celebrated the first Mass there and performed sacraments for another group of Catholics.
The first church serving the area was a cedar log structure; it was destroyed by a forest fire in 1914, Williamson said. The building that replaced it featured a single aisle with pews fanning out on either side; it lacked facilities for parish gatherings, he said.
During the 1960s, Williamson said, parishioners realized they were rapidly outgrowing the church building and needed a church hall. The church acquired land for building the hall, and planned to build a new church there later, he said. That church, at 6210 Mount Baker Highway, was dedicated April 27, 1975, according to the church history.
“It was a feeling of fulfillment,” Williamson recalled. “Everything was there in one spot for the community.”
Today, the mission has 99 registered households. Ethel Gobbato said the half-hour drive to St. Peter Mission from Sumas is well worth it because of the people and the camaraderie during coffee hour after Sunday Mass. “It’s a warm and friendly group,” Gobbato said.
Frank Cain recalls attending services at St. Peter’s while dating his future wife, Kathleen, a member of the founding Zender family. The experience was a little overwhelming at first. “I was the new kid,” said Cain, who later became Catholic. “Everyone knew everything about each other.”
Parishioners, many of them descended from the founding members, gathered to celebrate the 125th anniversary of St. Peter Mission in Deming. The mission has 99 registered households. Photo: courtesy Bambi Alejandre-Hagan
Today, Cain helps their youngest son with upkeep of the St. Peter’s cemetery, located at the site of the original cedar log church.
The Cains raised their four children at St. Peter’s, where they were also involved in the mission’s religious education program and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“The church to me is just full of memories of these things,” Kathleen Cain said. “I think the biggest thing for me is family — not the Zender family, the Catholic family.”