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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark CATALDO (Sacred Heart) MISSION

Location: Kootenai County, on I-90 (U.S. 10), about 28 miles east of Coeur d'Alene.

The Cataldo Mission commemorates Roman Catholic missionary activities among the Indians of the Oregon country. Built during the period 1848-53 by Indian laborers using primitive methods, it is the oldest extant structure in Idaho. Reflecting the Greek Revival style, it is also of considerable architectural interest.

Reacting to reports that a Nez Perce and Flathead Indian delegation had visited governmental officials at St. Louis seeking to learn about the white man's religion, in 1840 the Bishop of St. Louis authorized Jesuit Father Pierre Jean De Smet to travel west and select mission sites. That year he journeyed with a fur caravan from St. Louis to Montana's Three Forks of the Missouri, investigating sites and preaching among the Flatheads. From then until 1846 he traveled extensively in the region between St. Louis and the Pacific Northwest and even into Canada. He and his colleagues founded at least eight missions in western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington.

After 1842 De Smet worked in conjunction with Canadian missionaries, who had preceded him by 2 years in the Oregon country. Late in 1838 the first Canadian priests had arrived at the Hudson's Bay Co. station of Fort Vancouver, Wash. At first the company restricted them from the area south of the Columbia River. By 1842 they had established a number of missions and mission stations in Washington and Oregon along the lower Columbia River and in the Willamette Valley. Both they and De Smet, who concentrated his efforts to the east, laid the foundations for later missionaries of their faith.

The first mission founded by Father De Smet, in 1841, was St. Mary's, at present Stevensville, Mont., replaced in 1850 by an agricultural settlement and trading post known as Fort Owen. Late in 1842 or early in 1843 Father Nicholas Point set out from St. Mary's and founded among the Coeur d'Alene Indians the Mission of the Sacred Heart (Coeur d'Alene), on the St. Joe River near the southern tip of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Lake. Because of recurrent flooding, in 1846 the mission was moved to its present location, on a low hill adjacent to the Coeur d'Alene River.

There, at a site chosen by Father De Smet, Father Joseph Joset, who had assisted Father Point at the first mission site, erected a temporary bark chapel. In 1848 Father Anthony Ravalli, an Italian-born priest, came from St. Mary's and began constructing the present mission building. He drew plans for a structure 90 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 30 feet high. Its construction was a remarkable feat of skill and ingenuity. The workmen were two priests and a band of Indians. Apart from several broadaxes, an auger, some rope and pulleys, and a pocketknife, they had no tools. Yet they followed the plans faithfully.

The work crew sawed trees with an improvised whipsaw. Harnessed to crude trucks, they hauled rocks for the foundation and logs for uprights and rafters. They joined the latter with wooden pegs, fitted into auger holes, and laced beams together with willow saplings for walls. The completed walls, covered with mud from the riverbank, were 8 inches thick. The church was in use by 1849 and formally opened in the early 1850's. The outstanding architectural feature, typical of the Greek Revival style, was the porch. It consisted of six tall classical columns, each cut from a single pine tree, supporting a wide roof. Inside the building, three altars and a baptismal font were erected. The workmen carved statues from logs and used Indian dyes for decoration.

Cataldo Mission
Time has wrought but few changes in Cataldo Mission, sketched here in the 1850's by Gustav Sohon. (Library of Congress)

The missionaries greatly influenced the life of the Coeur d'Alene Indians, originally organized in small, nomadic bands that utilized horses to hunt buffalo on the Plains. Under Jesuit guidance, many of the Indians settled near the mission and became farmers, though in 1858 some of them fought against the Army in eastern Washington. In 1861-62 Lt. John Mullan used the mission as a base camp for labor crews building the Mullan Road, connecting the Missouri and the Columbia. Because of Indian hostilities along the route, he urged the Jesuits not to abandon the mission, which he considered a moderating influence. When the road was completed, the mission served as a resting point for travelers. In 1877, when the Coeur d'Alene Indians in the vicinity were relocated about 45 miles southwestward because of a redefinition of their reservation boundaries, originally established in 1855, the missionaries at Cataldo moved to Desmet, Idaho.

In 1865 clapboard was applied to the walls of the mission. Otherwise it remained unaltered over the years, though it fell into disrepair and all the outbuildings disappeared. In 1928-30 civic organizations in Kellogg, Coeur d'Alene, and Spokane repaired and restored it as nearly as possible to its original condition, but did not remove the clapboard. Once each year a special Mass is celebrated in the mission building, which is still a consecrated church, owned and administered by the Boise Diocese. At other times a resident caretaker opens the church for visitors.

NHL Designation: 07/04/61

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005