Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

The structure at Fort Vancouver that by late 1845 was known as the "Old" Catholic Church had its beginnings as a warehouse. [1] As shown by the Emmons ground plan of 1841 and the Vavasour map of 1845, the "Chapel" or "Old Roman Catholic Church" was situated directly south of the Old Office and formed part of a row of buildings that divided the fort courtyard into two sections.

As did the Old Office, the Old Catholic Church stood only a few yards west of the line of the palisade that enclosed the small 1829-ca. 1836 fort on the east (see line BE on Plate I, vol. I). When the fort was enlarged to the east about 1836 this old line of pickets was removed, leaving three buildings standing isolated across the center of the yard.

Archeological excavations in 1952 were unsuccessful in finding any traces of the Old Catholic Church. [2] Therefore, the only reasonably precise evidence as to the exact location of this structure is the Vavasour map. According to that source, the chapel lay about twenty feet directly south of the Old Office and about 200 feet east of the Sale Shop. Its location is now designated as Building No. 1. [2] on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Nothing has yet come to light concerning the precise function of this structure prior to its dedication to religious purposes in 1838 or 1839. That it was a warehouse is known, but whether for provisions, merchandise, or furs remains a mystery. But from its location in the western section of the fort and from the fact that it was considered "old" in 1838 or 1839, it can be assumed that the building probably dated from 1829, when the post was moved down from the hill to the river plain.

The history of religious activities at Fort Vancouver has already been recorded in some detail, and that story will not be repeated here. [3] Suffice it to say that the first Catholic priests to take up permanent residence in the Columbia District, Fathers Francois Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers, arrived at the depot on November 24, 1838. They had crossed the continent with the Company's express and came with the knowledge that the Governor and Committee in London had instructed the chief factor at Vancouver to "facilitate the establishing of the Mission." [4]

Such orders were entirely superfluous. Dr. McLoughlin had per haps been the primary mover in the drive to obtain Catholic priests for Oregon. Although he was away on furlough when the fathers arrived, his temporary replacement, James Douglas, was only too willing to carry forward the wishes of his chief and of the London directors.

On the day after they reached the depot, Fathers Blanchet and Demers improvised an altar in the schoolhouse and conducted the first Catholic mass ever said at Fort Vancouver and in "lower Oregon." From this beginning, their labors among the fort's Catholic employees rapidly expanded. Preaching, religious instruction, and the performance of baptisms, burials, and marriages went ahead diligently. Missionary work was also done among the Indians near the post. [5]

Even for the first mass the schoolhouse proved far too small to accommodate all who wished to attend services. [6] Undoubtedly the Catholic observances, like those of the Protestants, could have been held in the larger mess hall in the Big House had the priests so desired, but perhaps the fathers had much the same aversion to worshiping in such a secular and busy place as had been expressed by Chaplain Beaver. At any rate, they soon obtained what the Anglican minister had been unable to procure--a separate chapel.

In late 1838 or in 1839--witnesses fail to agree--the priests were permitted to take over for use as a chapel the "old store" within the pickets. [7] This was the structure near the center of the fort enclosure identified as the "chapel" by Emmons and the "Old R. C. Church" by Vavasour. Father Blanchet later described it as a "large building" but said that even it was "generally full" during mass and vespers. [8]

According to Father Blanchet, this chapel was never used for any purpose other than the holding of Catholic religious services and missionary labors after it was assigned to the priests. [9] But Lieutenant Emmons, who spent some time at the fort during 1841, noted in his journal that the structure was used both for Catholic and "Episcopal" services. [10] This latter observation was confirmed by Governor Simpson, who in the same year noted that divine service was performed regularly every Sunday at the post, in English for the Protestants and in French for the Catholics. "The same chapel, a building by the by, unworthy of the establishment, served both purposes at the time of our visit," he wrote; "but separate places of worship were about to be erected for the two denominations." [11]

Perhaps Protestant services were held occasionally in the "old store," but the evidence that the usual place for these observances continued to be the dining room in McLoughlin's house is overwhelming. This condition held true even in 1841, the same year in which the observations noted above were made. Lieutenant Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition recorded in May of that year: "The dining-hall is given up on Sunday to the use of the ritual of the Anglican Church, and Mr. Douglass or a [Protestant] missionary reads the service." [12] Two years later, on August 13, 1843, Clerk Thomas Lowe noted in his journal: "Divine Service in the Hall of the Big House as on every Sabbath. Chief Factor Douglas acting as Chaplain and I reading the Lessons." The same journal for the latter half of 1845 contains a number of references to Protestant services in the mess hail but there is no mention of them being conducted in the chapel. [13]

It should also be mentioned that the French visitor, Duflot de Mofras, noted in 1841 the existence of "a Catholic chapel used as a school." [14] If the instruction was other than religious (of which there was a good deal), this writer has not yet encountered another mention of the fact.

As was brought out in considerable detail in Chapter XI on the Priests' House, the Catholic clergymen were by no means in continuous residence at Fort Vancouver until about 1844. During the frequent and often lengthy absences of the priests on other missionary errands, Catholic services continued to be held in the chapel under the leader ship of a lay person. Often this person was Chief Factor McLoughlin. Before the arrival of the priests he had long been in the habit of reading Roman Catholic prayers for the French Canadians and their families. [15] He continued to do so afterwards. On August 1, 1841, Lieutenant Emmons noted in his journal that it "being Sunday, Episcopal and Catholic service was performed within the Fort, Mr. Douglas officiating in the former at his residence & Dr. McLaughlin in the latter at the Chapel." [16]

By 1841 McLoughlin was quite generally regarded as a "professed" Catholic, although he did not formally return to the Catholic Church until near the end of the following year. After 1842 he was even more active in religious affairs. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that on December 1, 1844, Thomas Lowe wrote in his journal: "No priest being now here, Dr. McLoughlin read prayers in the Catholic Chapel." [17]

The Catholics at Vancouver, as did Governor Simpson, soon came to the conclusion that the building assigned to them was "unworthy of the establishment," and they began to plan the construction of a church of their own. They attempted to buy land for this purpose, but the Company refused to sell. About 1844, however, the officers at Fort Vancouver gave Father Blanchet the use of a sizable tract of land about 250 yards north and west of the stockade. Actual construction of the new church upon this parcel evidently had not begun by February 21, 1845; but it was reported as being under way during August of that year. [18]

Erected by the Company with timber and lumber from the firm's mills, the new church outside the fort was dedicated on May 31, 1846.19 With that action religious activities in the "old store" within the pickets ceased.

On June 18, 1846, Clerk Thomas Lowe made the following important notation in his diary: "A gang of men employed with [Charles Diamare dit] Baron [a depot carpenter] pulling down the old Church in the Middle of the Fort. There now only remains the Office to break the full sweep of the Fort Yard, the Church and Office having run right across the centre of the Fort." [20] The Old Roman Catholic Church was no more.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003