Saturday, February 28, 2015

Black Robes in the Northwest

Father Pierre deSmet
Before he had seen any white men and before there were horses in the northern Rockies, Shining Shirt, a medicine man of the Salish tribe, prophesized the arrival of pale-skinned men in long, black skirts. They would teach them a new way of praying and how to reach the place of happiness. This prophecy was reinforced years later when migrating Catholic Iroquois from Quebec confirmed the existence of white men in black robes (Jesuit priests) who carried crucifixes, said the Big Prayer (mass) and did not marry. The Indian religion was false and they would never reach the home of the Great Spirit.

The tribes of the Inland Northwest (Salish or Flathead, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene) became obsessed with the desire for a Black Robe to come live among them and teach this new religion. They sent a total of four delegations over ten years to the Catholic Church in St. Louis and, finally, in 1841, Belgium-born priest Pierre deSmet arrived. He established a mission and small settlement in the Bitterroot Valley of what is now the state of Montana, and named it St. Marys. Later, he returned to Europe to recruit additional missionaries, among them Father Anthony Ravelli. Ravelli, born to a wealthy family in Italy, brought with him a range of skills: pharmacist, doctor, artist, architect, engineer. His talents are visible today in the mission church he built and decorated in classic Renaissance style with paints created from local berries and minerals. He sculpted statues of Mary
Saint Marys Mission Church
and St. Ignatius of Loyola, and used a hand lathe to carve the altar rail and baptismal font.

Cataldo Mission Church, Idaho
St. Marys was the first of the Pacific Northwest missions, but it was soon followed by others. The Cataldo Mission in the Idaho Panhandle near Coeur d’Alene was established in 1850, and is the state’s oldest, standing building. This charming, Italianate church is another example of Father Ravalli’s ingenuity and workmanship, and is created from the simple tools and local building materials available on the frontier at that time. He faux-painted the altar to resemble marble, crafted chandeliers from tin cans, and stained the ceiling with huckleberry juice. There’s not a nail in the entire building.

Interior, St. Ignatius Church
By far the most prosperous of the missions was St. Ignatius, also located in Montana, north of present-day Missoula. It had a saw mill, grain mill and school for boys. Later, the Jesuits were joined by the sisters of Providence and Ursuline who established a girls’ school and hospital. In the early 1890s, the need grew for a much larger facility and the current church was constructed using a million bricks made from local clay. However, the building’s most striking feature is the interior collection of 58 colorful frescoes painted on the walls and ceiling. The artist, Brother Joseph Carignano, was the mission’s cook and had no formal training in the arts.

All of these mission churches are National Historic Sites and open to the public.  St. Marys, located in Stevensville, Mont., about an hour’s drive south of Missoula, is open during the summer months only. Visitors are welcomed to explore the mission grounds including a museum, visitor center, Father Ravalli’s cabin and pharmacy, cemetery, Salish encampment, but a guide is required to view the chapel interior.

St. Ignatius on the Flathead Indian Reservation
St. Ignatius, about an hour’s drive north of Missoula, remains a functioning Catholic church located on the Flathead Indian Reservation and is open daily.  In addition to the beautiful paintings inside the church, the grounds include original log structures housing a small museum with mission and native artifacts.

Interior, Cataldo Mission
The Cataldo church is the centerpiece of Old MissionState Park, 25 miles east of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, along Interstate 90. With its pretty, hillside setting and charming rustic interior, it is not surprising that it is a popular venue for weddings. Of the three missions, this one offers the most extensive visitor center and museum. The first-rate exhibition, Sacred Encounters, was organized by Washington State University and explores the complexities of two intersecting cultures: European Christian missionaries, and indigenous populations with a very different sacred belief system and lifestyle. Highly recommended.



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