Parishioner traces ministry of the archdiocese’s early missionary priests

  • Written by Brad Broberg
  • Published in Local
Volunteer Joan Byrne gives a careful eye to her work translating and transcribing 14,500 entries in 13 sacramental registries, handwritten by priests in the early decades of the archdiocese. Photo: janisolsonphotography.com Volunteer Joan Byrne gives a careful eye to her work translating and transcribing 14,500 entries in 13 sacramental registries, handwritten by priests in the early decades of the archdiocese. Photo: janisolsonphotography.com

SEATTLE – Joan Byrne is traveling through time with the missionary priests who fanned out across present-day Western Washington more than 150 years ago.

The early priests ministered mainly to native tribes, but also to scattered traders, settlers and soldiers, recording the details of their work in registers. Their entries are among the 14,500 baptisms, marriages and other sacraments recorded in 13 registers spanning the years 1848 to 1938, and now kept by the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Archives and Records Management office.

Byrne, relying on her high school French, volunteered her time to translate and transcribe the early French-language records written by missionaries from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. After working nearly two years on the first three-plus registers — covering the years 1848–78 and containing 7,500 entries — Byrne is now transcribing the remaining registers, which are written in English.

“The main challenge is trying to read the handwriting,” said Byrne, an Issaquah resident who is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Issaquah and North American Martyrs Parish in Seattle. “Some [priests] had really neat handwriting and some were not so neat … but I’ve been looking at it so long I can pretty much get it,” she said.

Byrne enters the information she collects into a database being built by the archives, with the ultimate goal of making the information available online in a searchable format.

“This is a huge service to the church and just to the general research community,” said Seth Dalby, archives director. “Whatever [Byrne does] here, we’ll build on it until we have something that nobody has.”

This sacramental register, written in French, includes the baptismal record of Chief Seattle. He was baptized as Noé (Noah) Siyatle at the age of 50 on March 17, 1857, by Oblate Father Eugene Casimir Chirouse, a missionary priest serving people in what is now the Archdiocese of Seattle. Photo: janisolsonphotography.com

Chief Seattle’s baptism

Besides helping to preserve history, Byrne made a little history when she discovered the baptismal record of Chief Seattle in a register that had been overlooked. He was baptized as Noé (Noah) Siyatle at the age of 50 on March 17, 1857, by Oblate Father Eugene Casimir Chirouse.

“That was really exciting,” said Byrne, who also came across the record of Chief Seattle’s confirmation by Diocese of Nesqually Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet in June 1864.

Chief Seattle’s baptismal name — Noé (Noah) Siyatle — appears in a sacramental register from the 1850s.

A genealogy buff who completed a University of Washington extension class in family history, Byrne wasn’t sure what role she’d play when she sought to volunteer at the archives. But as soon as Dalby learned she knew some French, Byrne’s assignment was set.

Although many names contained in the sacramental registers were previously entered into an earlier database, Byrne is adding as many other details as possible, such as the person’s age, the date/location of the sacrament, the names of spouses, children and parents and, for Native people, their tribes.

Initially, it appeared the database would be primarily a genealogy tool, Dalby said. But now, “if properly mined, there is a lot of ethnographical and historical information, too,” he said. “This is the earliest recording of individual Native people in this area.”

A fascinating puzzle

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Seth Dalby, director of the Archdiocese of Seattle archives, and volunteer Joan Byrne view records that were kept by Oblate Father Eugene Casimir Chirouse. Father Chirouse, one of the five original Oblates of Mary Immaculate missionaries sent to this region, performed about 70 percent of the sacraments listed in the early registers now preserved by the archdiocese’s Archives and Records Management office. Photo: janisolsonphotography.com

Byrne photographs pages from the registers and downloads the images onto her home computer so she can enlarge them and make them more legible. She transcribes 10 to 15 pages per week onto forms she created to streamline the data-entry process. She travels to the archives every Wednesday to enter her latest batch of forms into the database.

The process may sound as exciting as watching paint dry, but to Byrne it’s a fascinating puzzle that combines her love of history with her love of the Catholic Church.

“Some people think it’s weird … but it’s fun for me,” she said. “I look forward to going in every week.”

The data comes alive in Byrne’s mind as she mentally tracks the day-by-day movement of priests from place to place across the untamed Pacific Northwest. “You could make a map that would be incredible,” she said.

Dalby said the archives may indeed create a map showing the routes of each of the early missionary priests, and also the movement of the tribes they visited.

Father Chirouse, one of the five original OMI missionaries, performed about 70 percent of the sacraments listed in the early registers, Byrne said. His picture hangs near her home computer for inspiration.

“He’s looking at me like, ‘You better do a good job,’” Byrne said. “I really admire all of the missionaries who worked so hard to bring the faith to the Pacific Northwest … especially Father Chirouse.”

Read more about Oblate Father Eugene Casimir Chirouse.