Rare Ayre is pleased to welcome you to our very first blog. Our writers will fascinate you each month with stories of places to see and things to do throughout the inland northwest. This month we are very pleased to welcome Robert Carriker, Vice President of the Washington State Historical Society and retired Alphonse and Geraldine Arnold Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts & Sciences at Gonzaga University. He is a personal friend and a wonderful scholar. His talented wife Eleanor, also a scholar, is a gifted researcher and both are in love with the Northwest. I hope you enjoy their captivating treatise.

Coeur d’Alene Mission


By Robert Carriker |  October 31st, 2016

Fall is the perfect season to visit The Coeur d’ Alene’s Old Mission State Park. Located near Cataldo, Idaho, just sixty miles east of Spokane, Washington, there is plenty to see.  The Visitor’s Center, for example, features a comprehensive, multi-million dollar museum exhibition called, “Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet & the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West.”  There are additional exhibits in the restored Parish House, a two-story gothic style building dating from 1887 that was once home to Catholic missionaries. Adjacent to the Parish House is the Sacred Heart Mission church, the oldest building in the State of Idaho.

The wooden porch of the church is wide enough for six classic columns, but there is still plenty of room to take a seat and enjoy the panoramic landscape. There is, frankly, no better place to exercise your “mind’s eye” and look backward to the nineteenth century, a time when Coeur d’Alene Indians and pioneer Jesuits watched as the American frontier approached their doorstep.


Peter John De Smet, S.J. made his first contact with the Coeur d’Alene Indians in the spring of 1842, but it was not until mid-1846, after De Smet had selected a site for their mission—a knoll overlooking the North Fork of the Coeur d’ Alene River—that plans were drawn for a church. Inexact construction of mission buildings took place for a few years but then, in 1850, Father Antony Ravalli, S.J. took on the project as both architect and construction engineer.  Ravalli had no formal training in mission building, but he had previously erected a church for the Flathead Indians in present-Montana. For the next three years Ravalli oversaw the construction of a church and several other buildings that received the name The Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Eighty logs were cut in the mountains and hauled a mile to the mission site using block wheeled handcarts. Some three hundred-plus Coeur d’Alene Indians eagerly worked alongside Ravalli and just one other Jesuit, Brother Vincent Magri. Women and children mixed clay to be used as mortar in walling the foundation. The only equipment Ravalli brought to the task was a broadax to shape timber, an auger to drill holes, a pocketknife, and a pulley to which the natives attached handmade fiber rope.  A building 40’ wide and 90’ long (porch included) took shape as 10” square beams were hoisted into place. Even today construction engineers are puzzled about how the workers at Sacred Heart Mission could raise the building’s frame up from the ground considering that the massive hewn posts were as high as 80 feet.  Next, cross sections were secured together by whittled wooden pegs or dowels. Some 50,000 hand-split cedar shingles covered the roof and approximately 20,000 feet of boards were cut in saw-pits, dressed, engrooved and placed flat for the flooring, all of this work done by Indian boys new to such labor.

For his architectural inspiration Italian-born and educated Ravalli drew heavily on the influences of Doric columns, Greek Revival architecture and Italian Baroque art.  Thus, from its inception the church was unique among frontier buildings.

For several years the Coeur d’Alenes and the Jesuits lived an idyllic life in their remote wilderness as they endeavored to complete the interior of the mission church. They also saw to the needs of the community by hunting, fishing, and gathering camas plants. Eventually workers made the inside of the church more compact by installing seventeen wood ceiling panels 25’ above the floor, each panel stained by huckleberry juice. Indians felt slightly claustrophobic during long church services, so shading the panels blue, like the sky, put churchgoers more at ease. Next, Ravalli used his pocketknife to carve religious statues for the church. A hot paint finish on the statues and on the main altar created the false, but pleasing, impression of Carrera marble.

In addition to decorating the church, Indians planted wheat and potatoes.  The introduction of livestock followed. When Isaac Stevens, the Governor of Washington Territory, visited the mission in October of 1853, he left a good account of Sacred Heart Mission. “The Mission is beautifully located upon a hill overlooking extensive prairies,” he wrote, estimating that 100 acres of the flat land nearby was already under cultivation. “They have a splendid church,” he continued, “by labors of the fathers, brothers and the Indians.”  Stevens also made note of a large barn, a mill for flour, a home for religious men, and a storeroom. The remarks of Governor Stevens are those of a man who is surprised by his encounter with such an isolated village. Soon there would be many more visitors to the mission, but not all of them would leave a favorable imprint.


By the middle of the 1850s several parades of gold miners, usually men seeking respite during an arduous journey to mineral discoveries in present-Washington, Idaho and Montana, imposed themselves on the mission.  Many of the visitors brought as baggage a boisterous disregard for laws and a cultural contempt for Indians. Not surprisingly, the second intrusion on the peaceful life of Sacred Heart Mission was an Indian war.

The Indian War of 1858 mostly took place fifty or more miles from Sacred Heart Mission, but Coeur d’Alenes, along with warriors from the Spokane and Palouse tribes, participated in several attacks on United States Army forces. The army countered with a very strong response administered by General George Wright at two battlefields after which, at the invitation of the distraught priest at the mission, a peace council was arranged. On September 17, under a leafy tree on the lawn of Sacred Heart Mission, the adversaries agreed to peace terms. Included was a provision that the Coeur d’Alene tribe would henceforth permit the passage of both soldiers and citizens through their traditional territory. How can one explain such a concession by the Coeur d’Alenes? Perhaps it was a sense of humiliation after several defeats at the hands of Wright. Or, perhaps the Indians misinterpreted Comet Donati as a celestial sign that the Americans possessed extraordinary power? The comet, discovered by astronomer Giovanni Donati in June of 1858, was the brightest object to appear in the heavens since 1811 and on October 10 it came closest to earth and remained visible for several days.  Its true influence on this treaty will never be known. (The comet will not pass by Earth again until the millennium that begins on January 1, 3001 and ends on December 31, 4000.)


Change came quickly to Sacred Heart Mission after the treaty signing. In August of 1859 a cadre of federal government surveyors laid out a road directly in front of the mission, where Interstate 90 is today. The Military Road—also known locally as the Mullan Road for Captain John Mullan, the commander in charge—reached Sacred Heart Mission on August 16 and would eventually wind its way 624 miles from Walla Walla, near the Columbia River, to Fort Benton, near the Great Falls of the Missouri River.  This transportation project, in effect, turned Sacred Heart Mission into a public way stop on the trail, unintended though that may have been by Mullan, the Indians, and the Jesuits. Mullan himself said he thought of the mission as “a St. Bernard in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains” a reference to the ninth century monasteryat the Great St. Bernard Pass in the Alps.


In March of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the creation of Idaho Territory.  Now the mission would beholden to the laws of a governmental entity headquartered nearly 400 miles to the south at Boise. After the American Civil War concluded in April of 1865 thousands of pioneers seeking a new start in life traveled west to the Idaho Territory, in the process swelling the population to 32,000. (New York City, by comparison, during the same period, counted 700,000 persons!) More than a few newcomers to Idaho Territory lusted for the lands of the Coeur d’Alene natives, and especially the property at the mission.

Life at Sacred Heart Mission took an unanticipated turn in 1873 when President U. S. Grant assigned the Coeur d’Alene tribe to a new reservation.  At first the Indians, and the Jesuits, paid little heed to the announcement because they assumed that the mission property that once fell within the original 1867 reservation boundaries would also be within the new reservation. Four years after the presidential declaration the ugly truth became known: Sacred Heart Mission was not located within the 1873 reservation boundaries. The realization devastated the Coeur d’Alenes.  Indians, as non-citizens (until 1924) could not launch a legal complaint in federal court, but Jesuits could and they did. After taking testimony and examining documents a court determined that the Jesuits had early on purchased the mission property from the Indians for $300 in supplies, so there would be no homestead claims allowed on private property.  But that court decision did not halt a government-mandated exodus of Coeur d’Alene families to the new reservation.

Facing the inevitable, in 1877 and 1878 the Jesuits began to build a new mission for the tribe within the 1873 reservation. The tribe, of course, naturally resisted and asked:

Have we then to leave this beautiful church which we have built with our own hands and which has given us the knowledge of God?  . . .  Must we leave these woods which have supplied us with firewood and with game, this prairie which has fed our horses, this river which has given us the trout and the beaver?”

— Augustine, Coeur d’Alene elder.

Only when Jesuits packed the statues and the church furnishings for delivery to the new mission did the Indians, reluctantly, follow.  Jesuits named their new location Desmet, Idaho, to honor the missionary priest who, in 1842, had befriended the Coeur d’Alenes.

Henceforth, The Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart of Jesus would be known affectionately to the tribe, and to history, as the Old Mission.