Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Model of the first Catholic church in Oregon, where the first Mass occurred, stands outside the 1846 St. Paul church.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Model of the first Catholic church in Oregon, where the first Mass occurred, stands outside the 1846 St. Paul church.

ST. PAUL — In 1834, French Canadian settlers in the remote Willamette Valley began begging for priests. They had turned from itinerant fur trapping to farming and thirsted for Catholicism as part of a settled life.

"Such a request from persons deprived of all religious attendance could not fail to touch my heart," answered Bishop J.N. Provencher from his post in Red River, Manitoba. But the bishop would not be able to find a missionary to send west for four more years, so the former voyageurs and their Indian wives kept the faith alive as best they could.      

The pioneers' prayers were answered on Jan. 6, 1839, when Father Francis Norbert Blanchet arrived after an eight-month trek from Montreal and presided at Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany. Archbishop Alexander Sample today paid tribute to the zeal of the settlers and missionaries when he came to this historic town to note the 175th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in what is now Oregon.  

"Every person in the church today has inherited from your ancestors the gift of faith, the gift of community, the gift even of this church," the archbishop said. "I'm sure there were many sacrifices to build this community, to hand it on. Now it's your turn."

He urged parishioners to re-dedicate themselves to the work of evangelization. Referring to the feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men from the East followed a light to find Jesus, the archbishop told parishioners: "You are the light now."

Father Blanchet, who would become Oregon's first archbishop, left Montreal in May 1838 traveling by canoe, barge, horseback and foot. He and his companion, Father Modeste Demers, said Mass at camps along the way, arriving at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River in late November. By the start of 1839, Father Blanchet began the trek up the Willamette with men from French Prairie as guides. He disembarked to walk around dangerous Willamette Falls, having become acquainted with deadly rapids on other rivers.   

In St. Paul, the missionary found a 30-by-70-foot log chapel. The indefatigable settlers had built it in 1836, aware that Methodist missionaries had constructed their own house of worship not far away.  

In his memoir, in which he refers to himself in the third person, Archbishop Blanchet recalled Jan. 5, 1839: "The Vicar-General took possession of a part of the church at the back of the altar, measuring 12 by 30 feet, which being afterwards divided by an alley of six feet, gave sufficient accommodation for two bedrooms on one side and a kitchen and dining room on the other."

On the following day, Jan. 6, "being Sunday and the Epiphany of our Lord, the church was blessed under the patronage of the great apostle St. Paul, after which was celebrated the first Mass ever said in the valley, in the presence of the Canadians, their wives and children."

In addition to the first Mass, Father Blanchet preached a month-long mission, teaching the catechism, baptizing 74 faithful and blessing 24 marriages. He took up residence in St. Paul later that year, bringing with him an 80-pound bell the men suspended from an oak tree.  

By 1844, a school would begin at St. Paul and by 1846, a larger brick church replaced the chapel. The California gold rush would siphon away much of the population, but a hearty few stayed to farm and live a good Christian life. Those are still the values here.

"Not much changes in St. Paul," says Mark McKay, a farmer whose family has worked the land around here for six generations. Being a part of the history matters to him. When venerable St. Paul Church was under repair after a 1993 earthquake, McKay had his daughter baptized in the building, even though it was full of scaffolding, dust and piles of tools.   

"We have no plans to go any place else," McKay says, staring up at the steeple of the church, which has stood beacon here since the days of Archbishop Blanchet.

Not that there weren't hijinks. Wally Pohlschneider, an altar boy during the 1950s, recalls when some boys — he's not naming names — broke a stained-glass window during a dirt clod fight.  

At today's anniversary Mass, Archbishop Sample, the 11th Archbishop of Portland, said that the Epiphany was an appropriate time for the first Mass in the region. The feast marks recognition that Jesus is savior of all nations. The archbishop explained that Father Blanchet came so that Christ would be known to more and more people.

"Yes, we look back and celebrate the past," the archbishop said. "But more importantly we look to the future. You, my friends, are heirs of a great tradition."

Children of the parish, some in their finest blue jeans and shiniest belt buckles, sang William McDowell's "Here I am to Worship" for the congregation. In part, it said: "Here I am to say that you're my God. All together lovely. All together worthy. All together wonderful to me."

After Mass, the archbishop and others sang Happy Birthday for 103-year-old parishioner Irene Hiller. He also assented to pose for a photo with three former St. Paul Rodeo queens.

“The parish community of St. Paul is a study of a lived faith throughout the history of the Catholic Church in Oregon,” says Msgr. Gregory Moys, who gave a history of the parish at the close of Mass. “It seems that each year brings another milestone in the historical development of our community. Historical celebrations not only remind us of our origins pointing the way to new beginnings in fulfilling the hopes and visions of those who have gone before us and our hopes and visions in a faith lived today.”