Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Replica shows log church where Oregon's first Mass took place. Where the original church was built is uncertain.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Replica shows log church where Oregon's first Mass took place. Where the original church was built is uncertain.
In their hewn log chapel, French Canadian settlers gathered 175 years ago for the first Mass in what would become the state of Oregon. They had long yearned for a priest and finally he came — Father François Norbert Blanchet, future archbishop of the region. The first Mass took place on the Feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6, 1839.

Local historians have long wondered exactly where the 30-by-70-foot chapel was located and so where this momentous liturgy took place. They know it was in the environs of French Prairie, but are not sure precisely.

At the time, the Hudson's Bay Co. called the settlement the "Catholic Mission of the Willamette," or "Walamet" in Blanchet's spelling. The Catholic settlers had frequently sent fervent petitions for priests to Bishop Joseph Provencher, the Quebec auxiliary who was given responsibility for the northern and western frontiers, and to St. Louis, Mo.

The Methodists had established their Willamette Valley settlement at Mission Lake in 1834. The location was suggested by John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Co. at Fort Vancouver and a Catholic convert. By 1836, the Catholic Canadians began building their own church, hoping it would serve as enticement for a black robe.  

Legend suggests three possible locations: Fairfield, about six miles south of present day St. Paul; the town of Champoeg, five miles northeast of St. Paul; and Mission Landing, one and a half miles away.

George Thomas Brown of the St. Paul Mission Historical Society advances another claim: Mission Creek below the ridge adjacent to the present day Knights of Columbus hall in St. Paul.

Historians tend to agree that the Catholic chapel was moved to just north of the old

Transporting the massive logs from any of the three sites of legend would have entailed substantial difficulty without roads or proper wagons. Another point in favor of Brown's theory: the three other speculative sites have higher ground nearby that probably would have been chosen.

More light for Brown's location can be found from the 1847 burial account of St. Paul parishioner Patrick Rowland, presumed to be written in the hand of Father Modeste Demers: Rowland, on Feb. 11, 1847, "has been buried outside the cemetery and without the presence of a priest at the edge of the woods opposite the church of St. Paul."  

Reference to the church assumes the log church since the current brick church was dedicated Nov. 1, 1846, with no record of a pastoral residence nearby. Bishop Blanchet was in Europe at the time of the Rowland burial, arriving in Oregon Aug. 19, 1847. It is logical to assume Father Demers was still in residence in the lean-to addition settlers had put on the log church.

Whenever feasible the preference was for a church to face east, as does the
brick church. "Opposite" could refer either to facade or apse and so might also vis-a-vis, the wording of the original French.

Brown points out that the Larousse dictionary of France) defines vis-a-vis as aspect, but the Robert dictionary of Canada defines it as visage; Fr. Demers was Canadian. Whether one chooses apse or facade to face the Rowland burial site, there was and is a grove of scrub oak east-southeast of the Knights of Columbus hall and almost due east of a present residence on the south side of a swale descending to Mission Creek.

The two current structures straddle the swale. Some local accounts tell of bridging between the convent and the present church as needed in wet weather for crossing the swale's westward extension.

The highway in St. Paul crossing Mission Creek is about a half mile above a dam. In high water, it is rather like a causeway crossing a lake. A short distance downstream from the bridge is a flat area on the west side. It is below the Knights hall and both cemeteries as well as the grove of scrub-oak. The area is large enough to situate the dimensions of the log church.

Brown says dragging 30- or 70-foot logs up the ridge by man or horse-power seems more viable than negotiating the distances from the three other speculative locations.

Location of the lean-to priest's quarters alongside the swale could provide
an easy water source, on the surface or from a shallow well. A model of the original chapel now sits next to the brick St. Paul Church, the oldest Catholic house of prayer in Oregon.  

It seems Rowland was buried outside the cemetery because his is the first death from intoxication on record in Oregon. The Oregon Spectator account of his passing could not resist some moralizing: "Suffice as warning to others."