St. Paul's Mission

Visitors pose in front of St. Paul's Mission in 1888 Visitors pose in front of St. Paul's Mission in 1888

Left image
Visitors and horses pose for photograph in front of St. Paul's Mission in 1888.
Credit: Jesuits West Archives / Gonzaga University

Right image
St. Paul's Mission in 2018.
Credit: NPS Photo / A.Sadlo

Portrait of Francois Norbert Blanchet
Portrait of Father François Norbert Blanchet

Oregon Digital Archives

A Promise

In early November of 1838, two Catholic priests, Father François Norbert Blanchet and Father Modeste Demers were enroute from Montreal to Fort Vancouver when they stopped at Fort Colvile, a fur trading post on the Upper Columbia River near Kettle Falls. Throughout the region, the fur traders promoted their coming to the Native Americans. Representatives from five tribes came. For three days, the priests along with translators conducted religious services, including daily mass and 19 baptisms. Their activities marked the first Catholic presence in the region between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. As they left the trading post, the priests promised the fur traders and natives that someone would return to establish a mission for the Upper Columbia River.

Portrait of Pierre-Jean de Smet
Portrait of Father Pierre Jean de Smet, Society of Jesuits (S.J.)

Library of Congress

Nearly seven years after the first Catholic priests came to the Kettle Falls region, Pierre Jean de Smet, a Jesuit priest from Belgum, came to fulfill that promise. A pioneer for the Jesuit sect of Catholicism, de Smet had been traveling for years back and forth from his base at St. Louis to Europe to recruit priests and secure funds in order to plant several Indian missions in the Pacific Northwest, most notably St. Mary's in Montana.

At Kettle Falls, he stayed for eight days. He noted some eight to nine hundred natives had gathered there for the annual fishing season. He built a temporary structure of boughs – a primitive structure of logs and brush in the middle of a Indian village on a bluff overlooking the falls. His stay was successful, performing over 100 baptisms. De Smet wrote, “A solemn mass was celebrated during with the Indians chanted canticles in praise of God…I gave the name of St. Paul to the Skoyelpi [Colville] nation.” As he left, de Smet said to the natives that one of his priests would come to be with them permanently.

Portrait of Antonio Ravalli
Father Antonio Ravalli, S.J.

Jesuits West Archives / Gonzaga University

Building a Mission

One month later, Father Antonio Ravalli, an Italian Jesuit preist and one of de Smet’s recruits, came to Kettle Falls to take charge of the fledgling mission. He was educated in drawing, architecture, medicine, and theology. He immediately began construction of a small chapel. However, one month later, Father Ravalli was recalled to St. Mary’s Mission following the death of a priest there and would not return to St. Paul's Mission until 1857. Father Christian Hoecken from St. Ignatius Mission (present-day Cusick, WA) took over. In 1846, Father Hoecken traveled several times to St. Paul’s during the summer season to minister to the large gathering of tribes.


In 1847, Father Peter de Vos began his year-long residency at St. Paul’s. With assistance from fur traders at Fort Colvile, he began construction of a larger, substantial chapel to function both as a residence and a mission. Several cedar logs were chiseled and handhewn into beams for the frame. Instead of nails, pegs were used to keep the beams in place. White mud was chinked into the walls to prevent drafts. The building also featured glass windows. Two wood-burning stoves were installed to provide heat during the cold winter. By the end of the year, building of the mission was complete.

Painting by Paul Kane of Indians
Paul Kane, Indians Salmon Fishing, 1846, Oil on Paperboard, 21.9 x 35.5 cm.

Art Gallery of Ontario

The primary goal for St. Paul’s as an Indian mission was to minister to the Colville and surrounding tribes who for thousands of years called the Upper Columbia River their home. Mostly semi-nomadic, the natives came to Kettle Falls during the summer to fish for salmon before returning to winter grounds. To make them settle, the priests advocated teaching the Indians how to farm instead of relying on hunting and gathering. They worked with the fur traders at Fort Colvile, also an agricultural hub for the Hudson's Bay Company to develop farming skills.

Father Peter De Vos stayed at St. Paul’s Mission for four years. Until he was forced to retire in 1851 due to poor health, performed 491 baptisms, performed 123 marriages, and conducted 99 burials.

His success at Kettle Falls made the mission the center of Jesuit activity in the Upper Columbia River region.


Serving in Difficult Times

Fathers Joseph Joset and Louis Vercruysse served most of the 1850s, a time of several disturbing events that affected the mission. In 1851, a native prophet from British Columbia identifying himself as a “dreamer” came to Kettle Falls and prophesized against the Christian faith. He claimed to have passed out for six days and had several dreams, including seeing a dead person from the Colville tribe. Although the priests effectively ousted the “dreamer” from the region, he had gained many followers.

Photograph of Washington Territory Governor Isaac I. Stevens
Washington Territory Governor Isaac I. Stevens

Library of Congress

The influx of Americans settling into the Kettle Falls region created tensions among the tribes. In 1853, a devastating smallpox epidemic killed much of the native population. Afterwards, the priests conducted inoculations to prevent further outbreaks. In 1855, Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens proposed a reservation policy to place tribes on certain, allotted lands throughout the region as a way to prevent conflict. Instead, his proposal angered the natives. That same year, gold was discovered on a sandbar in the vicinity of Fort Colvile. News of the strike brought thousands of settlers to the Kettle Falls region in search of wealth, thus encouraging conflict. Protests began to mount by the Colville, San Poil, and other tribes. Priests who served at several missions throughout the Pacific Northwest and at St. Paul’s, including Fathers Ravalli, Hoecken, Joset, and de Smet served a spokesman or intermediaries on behalf for the native tribes to the United States Army and Governor Stevens.

In May 1858, war broke out further to the south of Kettle Falls. The Colville, San Poil, Okanogan and other tribes allied with the Spokane against the U.S. Army. During the conflict, Father Ravalli and Joset alongside with Fort Colvile chief factor Angus McDonald, served as peace negotiators and prevented any warfare from occurring in the Upper Columbia Region.

Their diplomacy spared any large consequences or warfare in the Kettle Falls region. But the war forced St. Paul’s Mission to temporarily close and would remain a seasonal mission until 1862. The U.S. Army established a military post, Fort Colville, near Kettle Falls in 1859.

Despite all of the turbulence of the 1850s, from 1852 to 1862, the priests conducted 880 baptisms and 123 marriages.


Decline and Decay

After St. Paul’s reopened as a year-long mission in 1863, Father Joset resumed his residency. But the mission focused exclusively on serving white settlers and Irish Catholic soldiers. In 1869, St. Francis Regis Mission was built 5 miles to the east. Serving both as an established church and Indian boarding school, St. Francis Regis took over as the center for Catholic activity in the Upper Columbia region. The last known mass at St. Paul’s was held on August 14, 1875, thus closing the mission for good.

People standing in and around St. Paul's Mission ruins
People stand in and around the remains of St. Paul's Mission in 1939.

Jesuits West Archives / Gonzaga University

For decades, St. Paul’s Mission slowly decayed into ruins. For years, people came to the mission as part of a “tourist attraction” to have their pictures taken. The cross on the roof fell off. Shingles fell to the floor. People had taken some of the wood from the walls and doors as part of building houses or other construction projects. Even the windows were taken. By 1938, the roof had collapsed and remnants of three walls remained standing.

Father Georgan and several volunteers rebuild St. Paul's
Father Paul Georgen (right center) and several CCC volunteers rebuilt St. Paul's Mission in 1939.

Jesuits West Archives / Gonzaga University


Several attempts to rebuild St. Paul’s Mission were suggested but never attempted. Then in 1938, Bishop Charles D. White of the Spokane Diocese began to lead an effort to rebuild the mission in commemoration for 100 years of Catholic presence in the Kettle Falls region. Sadly, White passed away shortly afterward but prior to his death, he passed the rebuilding effort to Father Paul M. Georgan from Northport, WA. With the assistance of the Colville Kiwanis Club, several businesses, and several Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) volunteers, the mission was rebuilt to its original appearance in 1939.

After the rebuilding, the Spokane Diocese passed control of St. Paul’s Mission to the State of Washington in 1951 until it transferred to the National Park Service in 1974. That same year, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, St. Paul’s stands as a monument of the Catholic presence in the Kettle Falls area, and the Indians whom the priests ministered to. St. Paul’s Mission is also part of the Mission Point Trail, a ¼ mile loop trail with wayside exhibits and other features describing the 9,000 year history of Kettle Falls.


Last updated: September 24, 2019

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