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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Catholic Church in the Northwest

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:05am

In 1837, Hudson’s Bay Company Gov. George Simpson wrote to the Archdiocese of Quebec to request a Catholic mission be established in his company’s territory north of the Columbia River.

A year later, the church sent the Revs. Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers on a seven-month journey across North America to Fort Vancouver. The priests would have religious control over everything west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and north of the Columbia River. Their primary duty was to “raise” the Indigenous peoples from what was perceived by the Europeans to be barbarity.

The priests journeyed with a party of pioneers. They rode horses, walked, paddled canoes and rode in boats for nearly 5,300 miles. By the time they arrived on Nov. 24, 1838, 12 of the 26 travelers had died. James Douglas, the company’s chief trader at Fort Vancouver, met the priests and directed them to quarters recently abandoned by the Anglican Rev. Herbert Beaver. The next day, they chose a room used as a school as the place to hold their first mass.

Although Fort Vancouver remained their priestly headquarters, in 1839, they traveled widely, setting up missions on the Cowlitz River, in Nisqually and in the Willamette Valley. In 1842, two more priests arrived. The Roman Catholic priests lived within the fort. The company generously fed them and gave them an annual allotment of 100 pounds. Still, company officers looked upon the fort’s Catholic employees with disgust.

The Catholics within the fort wanted to have a church nearby, but Hudson’s Bay Company refused to sell any of its land. However, the company did allocate a parcel north and west of the stockade to Father Blanchet for his use (near the west end of Fifth Street, where the Federal Highway Administration building stands today). On May 31, 1846, the Rev. Peter DeVos dedicated a church on that site, which Douglas founded and built. It stood 20 feet high, 81 feet long and 36 feet wide. Inside, it contained a gallery extending along its length, 12 feet high. According to a later writing by Abbe Rossi, it held 500 people. The Bay Company continued to claim the land but allowed the priests free use of the church and the building where the priests lived.

Father DeVos dedicated the church under the patronages of the “Holy name of Mary” and the “Apostle St. James,” naming it St. James Church. Of course, many convenient “country marriages” between HBC employees and Indigenous women were reformed by the Catholic marriage sacrament. A few notables joined the church, including Dr. John and Marguerite McLoughlin and the French-born explorer Benjamin Bonneville, who commanded Fort Vancouver from 1853-1855 during the fort’s transition from the British Hudson’s Bay Company to the United States Army.

By the British exit from Vancouver in 1860, the stockade and all its associated buildings were decaying. The last record about the wooden St. James Church appears after simultaneous arsons burned much of Vancouver. A New York Times headline on June 1, 1889, cried, “Vancouver Swept by Flames.” Its front-page story explained that four blocks of the business district burned down, that the damage wouldn’t exceed $70,000, and that “insurance was light.”

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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Columbian freelance contributor