In May 1939, performers from Seattle and Vancouver presented the grandest Catholic festival ever staged in the Pacific Northwest. It celebrated the anniversary of the arrival of two priests, Fathers Francis Blanchet (1795-1883) and Modeste Demers (1809-1871), at Fort Vancouver in 1838.
The Seattle group belonged to the Federal Theater Project, part of the Federal Works Project, established early in the Great Depression. They joined Vancouver residents and school children to stage the historical play directed by Edwin O’Connor, a well-known actor and producer who headed the Catholic production with help from Hallie Flanagan and her assistant Jan Norman.
The timing was slightly off for the event. Although staged in May 1939 as a 100th anniversary event, the two priests arrived at the fort in November 1838, making the event about six months late. Like the Federal Writers’ Project, the Theater Project may have also suffered from vague objectives and conflicted management that slowed the event. Or perhaps it was the grandiosity of Pacific Northwest officiates of the church wanting dignitaries from Quebec and Washington, D.C., to attend
According to a press release from the Northwest Catholic Welfare Conference News Service, Father Blanchet gave the first Catholic service on Jan. 6, 1839, near Champoeg (in what would a decade later become Oregon Territory). The release notes all the anniversary event’s activities. Twenty archbishops and bishops visited the area. Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani of the nation’s capital and Archbishop Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve of Quebec also came.
With 200 cast members, the play culminated in three days of events in Portland. Initially, the organizers intended to book a Hollywood star to play Father Blanchet in the pageant and brought up Spencer Tracy as a possibility.
Instead, they cast Rev. William Robbins of Seattle, a member of the Federal Theater Project, as Blanchet. Others in the Seattle troupe claiming key roles included Rev. Thomas Gill, director of Catholic Charities in Seattle, as Father Modeste Demers; Harold Lamb as Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor, Dr. John McLoughlin; and Thomas Dew as a Native American chief.
On the day of the pageant, May 10, Vancouver’s events opened with a Pontifical Mass at St. James Church, an Evergreen Hotel luncheon for visiting prelates, a Diocesan Council of Catholic women’s convention, a pioneer parade forming at 26th and Main streets, then marching to Columbia Street. The “Flotilla of Faith” historical pageant reenacting the priests’ river arrival at Fort Vancouver began at 4:30 p.m. The day ended with a junior and senior chamber banquet honoring Gov. Clarence Martin and another at Memorial Hall for Catholic women.
“For a brief hour, old Fort Vancouver lived again” and “the curtains came down on this new land” in the hands of Fathers Blanchet and Demers, reported The Oregonian the following day. Among a crowd of 5,000, Gov. Martin, Cardinal Cicognani and others watched the shoreline as a canoe approached.
That day, Sea Scouts replaced the “brawny” French voyagers who canoed the first two Catholic priests to the fort on the Columbia River while the Hudson’s Bay Company flag fluttered above. Only the 4:45 p.m. passenger train briefly disrupted the celebratory spirit tolling bells as it rolled on.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.