The History of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater
1829 – 1907
The struggle and triumph of the Catholic Church in the Northwest began in earnest in the 1830s. Discharged fur traders from the London-based Hudson’s Bay Co., who had mostly settled in the Willamette Valley and on the Cowlitz Prairie, wrote letters to the bishop in Montreal begging for priests.
The settlers longed for the sacraments and wanted to return to the comfort they knew from the church of their childhood. They wrote in 1829, in 1834 and again in the spring of 1838. They were rewarded on Nov. 24, 1838, when two missionary priests, Fathers Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers, arrived on the banks of the Columbia River and made their way to Fort Vancouver. Fathers Blanchet and Demers celebrated a solemn high Mass the next day inside the Fort’s stockade.
Thus began the Quebec Mission in Oregon country. Thus began the Catholic Church on a rugged frontier that counted 76 Catholics, mostly French Canadians and Iroquois men, women and children; and thus began a journey of faith that would bring about Vancouver’s Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, a beacon of holiness and sacrifice.
Fathers F.N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers
Our founding priests wasted no time. By Dec. 16, 1838, Father Blanchet was on the Cowlitz Prairie, celebrating Mass and establishing a permanent mission.
As a teaching tool, he invented the “Catholic Ladder,” a system for imparting religion to the Native people with a series of dots, among other symbols, to tell the story of Christianity and the main truths of the Catholic faith. A likeness of the ladder stands today at St. Francis Xavier Church in Toledo, Wash., and likewise a replica is just outside the rectory of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater.The fathers made the Fort their home base, setting up a chapel in an old store inside the stockade. The Hudson’s Bay Co. fed them and provided a place for them to live. Acting Chief Factor James Douglas was particularly welcoming in getting the missionary fathers settled.
But the priests and their flock longed for their own building. Hudson’s Bay wouldn’t sell them the land necessary, but the company turned over property to Father Blanchet for his use just west and north of the stockade. St. James Catholic Church, later known as the Pro-Cathedral, was dedicated May 31, 1846 (a pro-cathedral is a parish or missionary church that becomes a cathedral; a proto-cathedral once held the bishop’s chair, but reverted to being a parish church). The wooden structure was 83 feet long by 36 feet wide by 20 feet high. It could accommodate 500 people. The steeple was added later. The old building inside the stockade was demolished.
- On July 24, 1846, Pope Gregory XVI erected the Vicariate in Oregon into an ecclesiastical province, dividing the area into three sees or dioceses. Bishop F.N. Blanchet was named Archbishop of Oregon City; Father Modeste Demers became bishop of Vancouver Island; and Father Augustin Magloire Alexandre Blanchet, younger brother to the archbishop, was appointed bishop of Walla Walla. The brothers were consecrated at St. James Cathedral in Montreal: Archbishop F.N. Blanchet on July 25, 1845, and Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet on Sept. 27, 1846.
Shortly after Bishop A.M.A Blanchet reached Fort Walla Walla, having made the arduous journey from Montreal on the Oregon Trail, Cayuse tribal members killed 13 people on Nov. 29, 1847, in what’s known as the Whitman Massacre. Among those who perished at the Christian mission were Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa. Some attached to Whitman’s ministry, however, tried to blame the Catholics for the massacre when in fact Bishop Blanchet and his priests had tried to calm the situation, saved the life of Presbyterian clergyman Henry Spalding, and later stood up to vigilantes who wanted to execute five innocent Native Americans. The massacre kicked off the Cayuse Indian War, making it too dangerous for the bishop and his vicar general to stay in Walla Walla.
St. James became a Pro-Cathedral on May 31, 1850, when Pope Pius IX established another new see, the Diocese of Nesqually with A.M.A. Blanchet named bishop. The diocese stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific and from the Columbia River to the 49th Parallel.
On Oct. 27, 1850, Bishop Blanchet took up residence in Vancouver. Walla Walla was attached to the Archdiocese of Oregon and then suppressed three years later.
The fledgling Diocese of Nesqually, however, faced monetary shortfalls and an acute need for more priests. Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet went on a fund-raising trip to Mexico in March 1851, begging for money. He brought back eight paintings as well as cash, sacred vessels and vestments. Both Blanchets continued to seek assistance to administer their large ecclesiastical areas. From time to time, both had relied on the Jesuits and the Oblates for help, but they weren’t altogether comfortable with that, for they harbored deep suspicions about the religious orders.
In May 1853, Bishop Blanchet filed a 640-acre land claim for St. James Mission. This became a matter of contention for more than 40 years, finally settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The claim had its origins in the relationship between the church and the Hudson’s Bay Co. The contenders against St. James were the widow of Amos Short, Clark County of the Washington Territory and the U.S. War Department. The Short and Clark County claims eventually were disposed of as untenable. But the church’s case dragged on. It was finally settled in 1895, basically in favor of everyone except St. James.
However, the church had purchased land in 1872 to build elsewhere in the area — just in case — from Patrick and Mary Buckley for $700. That tract is where our present-day Proto-Cathedral stands.
Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence
In 1856, Bishop Blanchet brought Mother Joseph and Sisters of the House of Providence from Montreal to Vancouver. Mother Joseph proved to be a powerhouse for building Northwest schools, hospitals, orphanages, a home for the homeless and aged, and an insane asylum. She opened St. Joseph Hospital in 1858. It was the first hospital in the Northwest, and it stood near our present-day Proto-Cathedral. Providence Academy, her school for girls and the former headquarters of the Sisters of Providence, was completed in 1873. This architectural treasure is about four blocks from the Proto-Cathedral.
Mother Joseph’s legacy includes 11 hospitals, seven academies, five Native American schools and two orphanages throughout an area that today encompasses Washington, northern Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Mother Joseph could do anything. She acquired carpentry skills from her father. In her long and distinguished service to the church and humanity, she was architect, construction supervisor and administrator for many complicated, important and beautiful projects, including St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland.
Born Esther Pariseau in 1823 at St. Elzear, Canada, she went on numerous fund-raising trips to the rich mining regions of eastern Oregon and the Idaho Territory, where she typically collected $2,000 to $5,000 to help support her schools, hospitals and other projects.
The extent of her involvement in building St. James Cathedral in Vancouver is not known. However, according to historian Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J., Mother Joseph “was engaged in the embellishment of the cathedral.” It has been said that she designed the pews. She probably helped financially with her demonstrated abilities to collect thousands of dollars on trips to silver mines in the eastern reaches of Oregon and the Washington and Idaho territories, other sources say.
Schoenberg also writes that Mother Joseph, known as “the Builder,” formed statues cast in wax in her basement. This industrious and pious nun is said to have shorn hair from the heads of her orphans for the Baby Jesus and St. Lucian, whose form rests under the Proto-Cathedral’s St. Joseph side altar. St. Lucian, a Roman martyr, is typically exposed during November, the month in which the church honors the dead.
In June 1879, Bishop Blanchet, ill with malaria, was allowed to resign; subsequently, he lived in St. Joseph Hospital. His successor was Aegidius Junger, ordained a bishop on Oct. 28, 1879, by Archbishop F.N. Blanchet and assisted by his brother bishop. Less than two years later, the archbishop’s resignation was accepted in Rome. He moved into St. Vincent’s hospital. Bishop Demers had died in 1871, so by 1881, the three brave and resilient founders of the faith in the Northwest had turned over the administration to a new generation.
Bishop Aegidius Junger
Bishop Junger was born in Germany and educated in Belgium. The Cathedral of St. James the Greater was built under his direction with help from Father Louis Shram, pastor and vicar general of the diocese.
The cornerstone was placed July 27, 1884, the Sunday after the Feast Day of St. James the Greater, and the new cathedral was dedicated Nov. 1, 1885, in honor of Sts. James the Greater and Augustine. Archbishop Gross of Portland delivered a 90-minute homily.
Although architect Donald McKay has been credited with Vancouver’s St. James, he may have been given the plans from a church in Belgium, according to now-deceased parishioner and historian Victoria Ransom. Bishop Blanchet had traveled to Mexico and Europe to get help for his fledgling Diocese of Nesqually. Ransom suggests he may have brought back the plans for the cathedral from Belgium. Somewhere in Belgium is a church that is a duplicate of our St. James, except for the spires, Ransom wrote in a 1974 publication for the Clark County Historical Society.
St. James dominated the city of Vancouver, essentially a frontier town. It soared like a Gothic cathedral pointing pilgrims toward heaven with its stained-glass windows and vaulted-rib ceiling. The altar was carved in Belgium and shipped around the tip of South America. The brick came from the local Hidden Brickyard. Cut stone was from Camas; Stations of the Cross were from Belgium; and the stained-glass windows were made by the Franz Mayer Co. of Munich, Germany, then shipped to San Francisco before being delivered to Vancouver.
On June 21, 1889, the Pro-Cathedral just outside Fort Vancouver burned to the ground, probably the work of an arsonist. Someone had the foresight to save the paintings that Bishop Blanchet had brought back from Mexico nearly 40 years prior. (Six of them hang today in the Proto-Cathedral; one is in the rectory; and one is in the possession of a private party.) No charges were ever filed in the arson.
Bishop Junger oversaw the building of many churches and schools, including Bellingham, Chehalis, Everett, Puyallup, Snohomish, Holy Names Academy in Seattle and St. Martin’s College in Lacey.
He died Dec. 26, 1895. Mother Joseph was at his side. She was the rock who helped the three bishops of Nesqually — Blanchet, Junger and now Edward J. O’Dea — move the diocese forward.
Bishop Edward J. O’Dea
Parishioners and visitors to the Proto-Cathedral may notice a statue of St. Patrick on the left side of the altar. St. Patrick was a gift from O’Dea, third bishop of Nesqually.
The O’Dea family came from Massachusetts and settled in Portland. They became friends with Mother Joseph, and when Edward was a child, he would accompany the industrious nun on inspection tours of St. Vincent’s Hospital after the workers had gone home. He held the lantern for her, and he confided at a young age that he wished to be a priest.
She did everything to encourage his vocation, and her lessons and attention to detail still had influence years later when he became the third bishop of Nesqually and built a cathedral in Seattle.
When Bishop Junger died, Father O’Dea’s name — along with Father Peter Yorke of San Francisco and Father Peter Hylebos of Tacoma — was put forward. Pope Leo XIII chose O’Dea. There was a lag, however, in notifying him. In fact, a reporter from The Oregonian newspaper knocked on his door one evening in 1896, and asked him whether it was true that he had been named the third bishop of Nesqually.
“That’s the first I’ve heard about it,” Father O’Dea reportedly replied.
But it was true. “Little Eddie,” as Mother Joseph called him, was named bishop. She immediately set about embroidering his vestments and slippers for his consecration on Sept. 8, 1896, at the cathedral in Vancouver.
Bishop O’Dea recognized early on that Seattle was becoming a booming commercial center on the West Coast. The gold from Alaska was shaping the Northwest’s largest city. Some 100,000 prospectors came through Seattle, and the population exploded. Also, Father Francis X. Prefontaine, who built Seattle’s first Catholic Church in the Pioneer Square district, and influential laymen and women were pressing the bishop to move the diocese to Seattle.
The bishop did so. In January 1902, Bishop O’Dea went to Seattle to select a site for the new cathedral. He believed that a cathedral should sit high on a hill, so it was visible to all. He chose what’s now Seattle’s First Hill, a site with a sweeping view of Elliott Bay.
Mother Joseph died of a brain tumor Jan. 19, 1902. As Jesuit scholar Schoenberg points out, “She who had built and sustained more than a little of the diocese of Nesqually was not alive to see it end.” Bishop O’Dea, presided at her funeral at the Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver. She is buried at Mother Joseph Cemetery, which is the Proto-Cathedral’s parish cemetery.
In 1903, Bishop O’Dea applied to move the see to Seattle. He died Christmas Day 1932.
Seattle’s St. James Cathedral was dedicated Dec. 22, 1907. It was a sad day for Catholics in Vancouver when the bishop read the brief of Pius X, dated Sept. 11, 1907, changing the diocese from Nesqually to Seattle. But in the hearts of Vancouver parishioners even today, theirs was the mother church, forever the landmark cathedral for the birthplace of Catholicism in the Northwest.
Robert Carriker, longtime history professor at Gonzaga University, said St. James Cathedral brought stability to a diocese established on an unsettled frontier. He made this comment just before Archbishop J. Peter Sartain designated Vancouver’s church as the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater for the Archdiocese of Seattle on Oct. 27, 2013.
Carriker wrote in an email that despite having to rely on Jesuit and Oblate missionary priests more beholding to their superiors than to Bishop Blanchet, the Diocese of Nesqually grew in stature and accomplishment during its brief tenure. By 1907, Carriker wrote, “St. James was headquarters for 42 parishes with resident pastors and 42,000 Catholics.
“Designating St. James a Proto-Cathedral in 2013 reminds all Catholics in Washington state of the historic debt owed to the religious men and women who came from Canada, America and Europe to bring instruction, schools and hospitals to the Pacific Northwest.”