STEVENSON, Wash. — The nation's most unchurched region is home to the world's largest catalogued collection of rosaries. A modern museum along the scenic Columbia River houses a display of 4,000 of the beady Catholic prayer aids, from pinhead dimensions to a 16-foot-long rosary Massachusetts school children made of styrofoam ovals and orbs the size of softballs.
The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, dedicated in 1995, won awards for its glass and concrete design. Lewis and Clark camped just a mile away and the museum sits on a spot where local tribesmen ferried passengers across the wide river. It's near the site of an 1856 tribal uprising in which white settlers and natives alike died.
The rosaries occupy the museum's upstairs corner amid wooden gothic arches and other religious artifacts, including the 1873 altar from St. James Mission in McMinnville and a kneeler used by Archbishop Francis Blanchet, the region's first Catholic spiritual leader. There are relics, including one of St. Clare of Assisi.
The museum's lower floors include a walk-through river gorge scene with ancient tribal wall drawings, a recreated trading post from the age of exploration, a two-story-tall wheel used to catch salmon in the 19th century, a 1917 bi-plane, a 1921 logging truck and a massive century-old mill engine that runs. Outside are hulking train cars and vintage farm machinery.
The rosary collection sits quietly above the displays and tools of industry.
The collector was Don Brown, a Catholic convert who lived near the Bonneville Dam and feared devotion to the rosary was fading. He started the collection in 1917, crediting his devotion to a pneumonia-caused stint in the hospital in Coos Bay, where the Sisters of Mercy wore rosaries on their habits.
Brown became a lay Dominican and carried on correspondence with rosary advocates around the world. People dropped off many delicate and rare examples at his home. As his collection grew, he meticulously numbered the rosaries and recorded the provenance and donor of each. In the cases at the museum are beads made of glass, bone, metal exotic nuts, gems, knots of leather and even olive pits. A pod of 39 wooden rosaries is configured to form a U.S. flag.
Sharon Tiffany knew Brown, who died in 1975 at age 80 in an auto accident.
"He was very friendly, very quiet," Tiffany says.
The collection was cited by Ripley's Belive it or Not in 1973.
The most historically significant rosary is one sent in 1960 by Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was running for president at the time. The candidate said he had carried the small wooden rosary when he was in the Navy during World War II. Others of interest came from Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town, TV personality Lawrence Welk and Al Smith, who ran for president in 1928.
A computer screen with the collection allows viewers to read about each rosary hanging behind glass in the massive collection.