Catholicism in the Walla Walla Valley

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 8/17/2010
  • Essay 9514
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Roman Catholics were among the earliest explorers to enter the Pacific Northwest in the eighteenth century and they were among the earliest settlers in the region in the nineteenth century. The formal presence of the Roman Catholic Church began in 1838, when the first priests arrived under the direction of the Hudson's Bay Company, and established missions north and south of the Columbia River on the Cowlitz and Willamette rivers. A few years later, in 1841, another Catholic mission arrived from the United States. In 1846, the Northwest became an archdiocese and the Diocese of Walla Walla, extending between the Cascade and Rocky mountains and the Canadian and California borders, was established. After the Whitman massacre and resulting battles, the Diocese of Walla Walla was suppressed in 1853. Although the church tried to maintain its missions in the Walla Walla Valley during the conflicts of the 1850s, church activities were suspended for a few years until 1859, when Catholic institutions began to be established in the area. These included St. Patrick's Church (1859), St. Vincent's Academy (1864), and St. Mary's Hospital (1879).

The First Northwest Catholics

The first known Catholics to enter the Pacific Northwest were French Canadian fur trappers who entered Montana in 1743. Later, in the 1770s, Spanish explorers journeyed up the West Coast. As the fur trade grew in the early nineteenth century, French Canadian trappers began to form settlements in the region. Perhaps as early as the 1830s, a “Frenchtown” began to take form up the Walla Walla River from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Walla Walla.

The formal presence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Northwest began in 1838, when Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) and Modeste Demers (1809-1871), responding to a request for priests from trappers in western Oregon territory, arrived from eastern Canada. Along the way, on November 18, 1838, the priests stopped at Fort Walla Walla, celebrated Mass, performed three baptisms, and met with members of the Walla Walla and Cayuse tribes. Under the direction of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Blanchet and Demers established missions north and south of the Columbia River, on the Cowlitz and Willamette rivers.

In 1831, four Native Americans from the Northwest arrived in St. Louis to meet with William Clark (1770-1838), formerly of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and at that time Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to learn more about Christianity. Reports of this visit inspired both Protestant and Roman Catholic missions to the Northwest, and in 1841 Peter DeSmet (1801-1873), a Jesuit missionary working among the Plains tribes, moved west. In 1842, Blanchet, Demers, and DeSmet met and decided that Blanchet would oversee priests west of the Cascade Mountains and that the Jesuits would concentrate on the area east of the Cascades. DeSmet then traveled to St. Louis and on to Europe to secure money and missionaries; he returned to the Northwest in 1844.

The Beginning and End of the Diocese of Walla Walla

In 1843, but unknown to him until 1844, Blanchet was appointed to the office of bishop for the Northwest. Following his consecration in Montreal, in 1845, Blanchet traveled to Europe and, during his travels, convinced the Pope to establish the Northwest as an archdiocese. In 1846, just after the United States and Britain had agreed on the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, Blanchet became Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City. Demers was appointed Bishop of Vancouver Island and Blanchet’s younger brother, Augustin Magliore Alexander Blanchet (1797-1887), was appointed Bishop of Walla Walla, a diocese extending between the Cascade and Rocky mountains north of the California border. 

Augustin Magliore Alexander Blanchet arrived at Fort Walla Walla on September 5, 1847. Although he was surprised to find no settlements but only a rough fort in the Walla Walla Valley, Blanchet immediately began working to identify potential sites for mission stations and met with Hudson’s Bay Company officials, local tribal leaders, and Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), who had established a Protestant mission, Waiilatpu, up the Walla Walla River in 1836. The first mission, St. Rose’s, was established by Pascal Ricard, Superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at the confluence on the Columbia and Yakima rivers about 40 miles northwest of Waiilatpu. The second, St. Anne’s, which Blanchet established with John Baptist Abraham Brouillet (1813-1884), was situated on the Umatilla River about 25 miles south of Waiilatpu.

Two days after Blanchet and Brouillet opened St. Anne’s, Waiilatpu was attacked by a group of Cayuse Indians and Whitman, his wife Narcissa (1808-1847), and a number of others were killed. Brouillet, who had visited with Whitman the day before the massacre, arrived at Waiilatpu for a follow up visit two days following the attack and ended up burying the dead. Brouillet helped save Henry Spalding (1803-1874), another Protestant missionary, who later blamed the Catholics for causing the massacre and failing to provide protection for women who had been captured and abused. The so-called Cayuse War followed, and Blanchet abandoned St. Anne’s. He waited at The Dalles for peace until 1850, when he was transferred to the new Diocese of Nisqually. In 1853, the Diocese of Walla Walla was suppressed. Some efforts were made in the early 1850s to minister to the Cayuse at St. Anne’s and at Frenchtown, at St. Rose of the Cayuse, but no activities are recorded in the regional records of the Catholic Church between 1856 and 1859.

Catholicism Settles into the Walla Walla Valley

In 1859, after a series of treaty negotiations and wars throughout the region, Toussaint Mesplie, who had arrived in the Northwest with Archbishop Blanchet in 1847 and was stationed at The Dalles, started St. Patrick’s Church in a small village that was forming around the U.S. Military Fort Walla Walla. In a rough shelter with no flooring and one bench, Mesplie is said to have offered the first Mass in this settlement called Steptoeville, which was soon renamed Walla Walla, to a small group of soldiers and white and Indian women. Walla Walla County’s first elections were held in the building used by the church, which was replaced by another building within a couple years. By the end of 1859, St. Patrick’s consisted of 75 adults and 54 children. In 1860, settlers in Frenchtown (near what is now Lowden) petitioned Blanchet for a resident priest for the St. Rose of Lima Mission (previously St. Rose of the Cayuse), but a permanent position was never established and the church closed 50 years later.

When gold was discovered in the early 1860s, east of Walla Walla in what is now Idaho, the new town of Walla Walla quickly became a supply center and stopping over place. Walla Walla continued to grow after the gold rush and, as an agricultural center, became one of the most populous areas in the territory. Brouillet, who became administrator of St. Patrick’s in 1862, asked the Sisters of Providence to establish an academy in Walla Walla. Brouillet raised money and a two-story building for the school and a convent on 5th and Poplar streets at the cost of some $7,000. The school, St. Vincent’s Female Academy, opened in March 1864 with an initial 45 girls and boys in regular attendance. Brouillet later opened a separate school for boys, St. Joseph’s, which did not remain open for long, and also oversaw construction of a new building for St. Patrick’s, which was dedicated in 1865.

In 1872, Thomas Duffy (d. 1884) became St. Patrick’s first resident pastor. At that time, the congregation numbered about 400. This number tripled over the next 10 years. Five years after the construction of the church’s second building, church leaders met to discuss the need for an even bigger building. The cornerstone for this brick Gothic building was laid in 1881. When it was completed, it was the most elaborate church building in the area.

The sisters who taught at St. Vincent’s helped the church and community in other ways, including caring for the sick and poor and, eventually, receiving patients at St. Vincent’s. In 1879, a separate three-story brick building was constructed to house St. Mary’s Hospital, the first non-military hospital in the territory east of the Cascades. The hospital, which opened in 1880, quickly outgrew its structure and in 1883 a new building was built and St. Vincent’s was relocated to the first hospital building. A new building was built for a boys school in 1897, which became the Le Salle Institute.

Stability and Change

All of the Catholic institutions were doing well at the beginning of the twentieth  century. St. Vincent’s was the second-largest private institution in Walla Walla (after Whitman College) with 225 female students and five teachers. In 1915, St. Francis of Assisi Church was established at 10th and Alder streets for the Italian families that had immigrated to the valley. Some 90 families initially made up this parish, and a larger church was built in 1939. St. Mary’s continued to grow and expand, too, although a new building had to be constructed after a fire destroyed its second building in 1915. A new, larger building opened in 1916, which, with various expansions, would house the hospital for the next 60 years. The Le Salle Institute closed in 1920, but St. Vincent’s took in the boys. In 1922, St. Vincent’s received high school accreditation. A new school, St. Patrick’s, opened in 1928. In 1959, on land purchased from Whitman College, new facilities opened for the high school, which became DeSales High School. In 1972, the Assumption Grade School, which was established in 1955 and also functioned as the town’s third parish, was restructured to meet all Catholic primary education needs in the area.

Like all Catholic churches, those in the Walla Walla Valley were significantly impacted by the theological and liturgical changes associated with Vatican II as well as the dramatic social changes that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. The decline of vocations to the priesthood and religious orders during the latter half of the twentieth century also changed Catholic institutions, especially schools and hospitals, which had to employ more lay workers.

Another significant change that has impacted the Catholic Church in the Northwest, particularly in agricultural communities, has been the increasing size of Hispanic populations, which, although often Roman Catholic, are linguistically and culturally distinct. Today, the Diocese of Spokane, which since its establishment in 1913 has had oversight of the eastern third of the state, counts 102,000 Catholics and 152 priests in its territory.

Sources: Francis Norbert Blanchet, Historical Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1983); Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vol. 2 (Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1973); Anna Clare Duggar, Catholic Institutions of the Walla Walla Valley, 1847-1950 (MA Thesis, Seattle University, 1953); Edward J. Kowrach, Journal of a Catholic Bishop on the Oregon Trail: The Overland Crossing of the Rt. Rev. A. M. A. Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla, from Montreal to Oregon Territory, March 23, 1847 to January 23, 1851 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1978); W. D. Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties, Vol. 1 (Chicago:  The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest: Missions of St. Ann and St. Rose of the Cayuse, 1847-1888, Walla Walla and Frenchtown, 1859-1872, Frenchtown, 1872-1888 ed. by Harriet D. Munnick and Adrian R. Munnick (Portland, Oregon: Binford & Mort Publishing, 1989); Wilfred Schoenberg, A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983 (Washington, D.C.: The Pastoral Press, 1987); Wilfred Schoenberg, A Pictorial History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, Oregon: Knights of Columbus, 1996).

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