Idaho’s Wilderness Cathedral
ALSO KNOWN AS THE CATALDO MISSION
The Mission of the Sacred Heart, commonly known as the Cataldo Mission, or Old Mission State Park, was built by the combined efforts of Jesuits Fr. DeSmet and Fr. Ravalli, as well as members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. After relocating the original mission here from the St. Joe River, it became the first permanent mission in Idaho. Built in the Baroque style, construction began in 1850 and was completed in 1853. It is the oldest standing building in Idaho, as well as the oldest surviving mission church in the Pacific Northwest.
The History of Catholicism in North Idaho
The Catholic mission to Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Indians began with services that Jesuit Father Nicolas Point conducted on December 2, 1842, on the north shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene where the modern city of Coeur d’Alene is located. Point had been living with a band of Coeur d’Alene since November 4, and he based the mission at their winter camp where the Spokane River flows out of the lake. When spring came, he established the mission at a site on a river he named after St. Joseph, northwest of modern St. Maries. By 1844 a hundred converts were assembled at the mission, which likely at first was also named for St. Joseph. Because the riverside location was subject to flooding, the mission was moved in 1846 to a site selected by Father Joseph Joset above the Coeur d’Alene River west of later Cataldo. A temporary chapel and three log cabins housed the renamed Mission of the Sacred Heart until a large permanent mission church, designed in 1848 and under construction until 1855, could be completed. By that time, hundreds of Indians had settled at the mission and a dozen of their families lived in log cabins. A large barn, a flour mill, a dairy, and two hundred acres of cultivated farmland supported mission activities. Anthony Ravalli, a Jesuit missionary from Ferrara, Italy, who had studied mathematics and science as well as theology and philosophy, had experience in both a mechanic’s shop and an artist’s studio. With skilled Coeur d’Alene craftsmen who used broadaxes, a whipsaw they had to make from local materials, augers, and ropes and pulleys from European sources, Ravalli managed to construct a spectacular church overlooking the Coeur d’Alene Valley. The structure depends upon heavy timber frames and braces, the intervening spaces filled with local forms of plaster, grass, and mud. Ravalli was building a European mission church to serve Idaho Indians who had not even come under United States jurisdiction until the mission moved to its new site in 1846, and he used Italian designs that reflected nineteenth-century styles in his native country. Such designs also became popular in United States architecture. His building—now Idaho’s oldest surviving structure—made a great impression upon anyone who came by. It is still an imposing monument, maintained for the Coeur d’Alene people as an Idaho state park. After three decades of operation at the site near Cataldo, a new location for the Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart was developed farther west, within the bounds of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation at Desmet, in 1877. But a pilgrimage by the Coeur d’Alenes to the old mission church and religious services are still conducted each August 15, on the Feast of the Assumption
The Architecture of the Mission Building
Built in the Baroque style, construction of the Cataldo Mission of the Sacred Heart began in 1850 and was completed in 1853. It was built by Catholic missionaries and members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and is the oldest standing building in Idaho, as well as the oldest surviving mission church in the Pacific Northwest.
The architect Father Anthony Ravalli was a Jesuit priest from Ferrara, Italy, who had been stationed at the St. Mary’s Mission in Montana when he was directed to design the Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart. He was accompanied by one other Jesuit, Brother Huybrechts.
The chapel was constructed using only a broad-axe, auger, rope & pulleys, a pen-knife, and an improvised whipsaw. The building’s interior boosts of hand-carved details and natural materials supplied by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The setting of the Cataldo Mission is inspiring in itself as it sits on a hill overlooking the Coeur d’Alene River and valley with the mountains serving as a backdrop.
Regarding the architectural and stylistic details, the National Register reads, “The rectangular, gable-roofed church is undistinguished by any particular style on the east, south, and west facades, except for the deep-set windows in the thick wattle and daub filled walls. However, the front portico is Green Revival, in modified Tuscan order, and the cornice has triglyphs above each of the six columns. The pediment is modified Baroque in style, with four wooden urns on the steps, surmounted by a cross. The sunburst in the center, around a bulls-eye window, is Italinate, probably derived from the symbol for San Bernardino, often seen on Italian churches were he preached.
Overall, the church is 91′ – 10″ long, including the porch, 40′ – 8″ wide, with a height of 52′ – 2″ above grade. The rock foundation, approximately four feet thick, was originally set with mud, but masonry mortar has been added in subsequent repairs.
In the frame, huge wood uprights support the large rafters, with timbers of about 18 to 22 inches square in size, and 24 feet in length. Horizontal beams are mortised into the uprights. Holes were drilled in the uprights and will saplings were interlaced between them. Around the saplings, wild grass was closely woven and mud was spread over the entire surface. Wooden pegs were used exclusively throughout. In one of the rear rooms off the main altar, the original adobe wall construction is visible. In 1865, Father Caruana lined the exterior walls with clapboard, now painted yellow with white trim. Rafters ten to twelve inches square, resting on the upright timbers form the roof structure. The joints are all mortised, tenoned and pinned. The original roof was probably of hand-split wood shakes. ”
The entrance to the chapel leads to the rectangular nave on the north end and the main alter is located in the apse at the south, flanked by two smaller side altars. Each of these side altars have small rooms behind them. The floor is made of large hand-hewn planks and was likely installed later, approximately the 1860s, due to the fact that the attending Tribal members preferred to sit on the floor and pews were unnecessary (these were eventually added during the missionary period).
The Cataldo Mission has undergone restoration multiple times to ensure its long-term stability. In 1974, and archeologist from the Universtiy of Idaho, David Rice, undertook a project to identify all major buildings on site of the mission complex. His teams located the walls of the early parsonage, the foundation of a parsonage barn and a circular wooden structure, use undocumented. They also recovered Native American manufacturing artifacts as well as some artifacts from a late 19th-early 20th century Euroamerican manufacture. In 1975, Dr. Roderick Sprague of the University of Idaho led a 15-day archeological investigation to provide architectural historians with details on how to appropriately make the foundation more stable. And in more recent years, Budd Landon did some wonderful historically accurate mason work on the stone exterior to ensure the longevity of the structure.
You can visit the original Historic Inventory Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places to read more on the vast history of the Cataldo Mission: https://history.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Cataldo_Mission_66000312.pdf
Purchase the Book
Wilderness Cathedral, by Jacob Eberlein, parishioner at ICC
In Wilderness Cathedral: The Story of Idaho’s Oldest Building, historian and Coeur d’Alene resident Jake Eberlein writes with relish as he tells the story of the Old Sacred Heart Mission and its significance to Cataldo and the larger Pacific Northwest region. Eberlein correctly points out that although this is a history of a single building, the story he tells is really the history of the region. Wilderness Cathedral makes important contributions to our understanding of Idaho’s history but it also offers a valuable lesson on why communities should strive to preserve our historical landmarks for future generations to appreciate.
Mark Ellis, PhD
Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney
While much is written about religious buildings such as the California Missions or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, until this book precious little has been written about Sacred Heart Mission in Cataldo, ID. Historian Jake Eberlein traces the founding of the mission in the 19th century, the struggles and conflicts in building the mission, the changes it survived and the faith of the Native Americans and the Jesuits who served them which stood the passage of time. Wilderness Cathedral is a pioneering historical effort that sheds light on one of America’s great monuments.
Jake Eberlein holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska. He currently resides in Idaho with his wife and children.