Small faith community's history dates to its first Mass 175 years ago
By Jean Parietti
Faith and history are intertwined on the Cowlitz prairie. For nearly 175 years, Catholics have been celebrating Mass and receiving the sacraments on the same peaceful plot of land in present-day Toledo where the first permanent mission in Western Washington was established.
St. Francis Xavier Mission traces its beginnings to 1838, when it was established as the first permanent mission in what is now the Archdiocese of Seattle. The church standing today was rebuilt after a fire in 1932. Photo: Deacon Loren Lane
Parishioners Jack Herrick, left, and Frank Ross stand next to a replica of the "Catholic Ladder" on the gounds of St. Francis Xavier Mission. Dedicated in 2010, it was carved by a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to replace one installed for the mission's 100th anniversary. Photo: Jean Parietti
The story of how the Catholic Church came to the region in 1838 is "all about people's faith and how strong their faith is," said Michele McGeoghegan, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Mission who lives on part of the original mission land claim.
In the 1830s, settlers and French Canadian employees of the Hudson's Bay Co. petitioned several times for priests to come to what was called the Oregon country. "There was a Hudson's Bay farm here. Those people working for that farm needed some sort of spiritual direction," said Frank Ross, a longtime parishioner who compiled a history of the mission for its 150th anniversary in 1988.
Finally, in November 1838, French Canadian Fathers Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers arrived at Fort Vancouver and celebrated Mass in the schoolhouse there. On Dec. 12, Father Blanchet headed for the Cowlitz prairie, about 60 miles north, to establish a permanent mission north of the Columbia River. Arriving the morning of Dec. 16, he said Mass at the home of Simon Bonaparte Plamondon, a farmer who had retired from the Hudson's Bay Co. During his four-day visit, Father Blanchet baptized seven children and laid out a 640-acre section of land for Cowlitz Mission.
'Stick from heaven'
When he returned in March 1839, many Indians came to hear about the "Great Spirit." To teach them biblical history and the Catholic faith in a more familiar way, Father Blanchet (later named the first archbishop of what is now the Archdiocese of Portland) created a simply carved stick that became known as the "Catholic Ladder." The Indians called it "Sahale stick," or "stick from heaven." (A replica of the ladder stands on the parish grounds today.) By the time Father Blanchet returned in July, a simple chapel had been erected. He said Mass and dedicated it to St. Francis Xavier.
Over the years, the mission had a series of churches — and fires. On Jan. 1, 1901, the church and rectory burned to the ground, killing the new pastor, who had arrived just two days earlier. Fire leveled the rebuilt church in 1916 and then claimed its replacement in 1932, Ross' history shows. The parishioners once again rebuilt, and that church remains standing today. Franciscan friars served St. Francis for half of its years, from 1908–96. The mission remains small, with just 126 households.
The St. Francis Zavier parish cemetary provides a scenic view across the Cowlitz priarie. Grave markers date back to the 1800s. Photo: Jean Parietti
"The people in our parish love the place," said Jack Herrick, who joined St. Francis when he moved to the area in 2001. "We are very protective of what we have. We take care of it. We honor it."
A faithful family
The mission's history will be honored Dec. 15 with a celebration marking the 175th anniversary of that first Mass on the prairie. Archbishop J. Peter Sartain will concelebrate the anniversary Mass, sung in Latin by the parish's 15-member choir. Parish children in period clothing will bring up the gifts. After Mass, a brunch highlighting the parish's rural heritage will be served, said Herrick, chair of the planning committee.
"I think it's nice to be able to celebrate the milestones of the church and the mission," said parishioner Jim Raupp, who also lives on part of the original mission — land that has been in his family for some 100 years. His grandparents moved there when his father was a baby, and his parents are believed to be the second couple married in the present-day church. Jim received all the sacraments of his youth at St. Francis, and he and his wife Paula will be buried in the parish cemetery. "It's just been my church," Jim Raupp said simply. "It's just been a part of my life."
McGeoghegan, who moved to the former mission property about 10 years ago, feels fortunate to be part of the close-knit St. Francis community. "We see each other as family, basically, and we all have a very strong faith," she said. And there is an underlying gratitude to those early-day Catholics who seeded the Cowlitz prairie with their faith: "I think we feel a great affinity with everyone who has gone before."
Four other parishes in the archdiocese are marking significant anniversaries this year:
St. James, Vancouver – 175 years as a parish
October 18, 2013