I drove across my second panhandle of the trip a few days ago, and it was skinny, as panhandles are wont to be. The drive across Idaho couldn’t have taken much more than an hour. Along the way, about 20 miles east of Coeur d’Alene on I-90, was lovely Cataldo Mission. (Recommended by Andrea: Thanks!)
The oldest building in the state, Cataldo Mission was a Jesuit mission built in the 1840s, apparently at the request of the local Couer d’Alene Indians. First established by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet along the St. Joe River, the original location frequently flooded and the mission was soon rebuilt about 35 miles north.
Father De Smet was a major figure in the development of the American West. Born in Belgium, he moved to America to become a missionary. He first made his mark in Iowa, by brokering a peace deal between the Potawatomi and Sioux tribes in Iowa. Eventually he set out for the Northwest to minister to the Flathead tribe. Later, in South Dakota, he would oversee a treaty between the Sioux, under Sitting Bull, and the US government’s Peace Commission. The treaty was supposed to guarantee Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, as well as hunting rights in the surrounding area. And we all know how that turned out: unmitigated success! Still, however influenced by his times (duh), DeSmet seems to have been a sincere ally of the native people he worked among.
But back to Cataldo. It’s a simple site to tour: For $4, you get access to the mission building, along with a nearby parish house and a visitors’ center. You can also stroll around the surrounding grounds. The whole experience takes less than an hour, and that’s if you really linger. It’s worth a stop — and even a linger, if you have the time.
An Italian-born Jesuit named Antonio Ravalli modeled the building after the great cathedrals of his home country. The construction itself — completed by the Jesuits and Couer d’Alenes working together — is notably local and make-do: huge beams, cut on site, were connected by wooden pegs. Saplings were woven in, and then a mixture of grass and mud was spackled in and left to dry. The walls are almost a foot thick.
Ravalli’s original design may have been European, but the materials and spirit of the place are thoroughly American. Ravalli used tin cans to replicate chandeliers, and treated wood so it resembled marble. The walls were “papered” in fabric from the Hudson’s Bay Company (which is still around, and manufactures these classic blankets). Intricately cut and painted wood details the whole ceiling. The whole place has the look of skillfully crafted homespun improvisation, and it’s gorgeous.
Frankly, I’d love to attend church at Cataldo Mission. But it’s almost as good to just stop by and admire it on a peaceful autumn weekday.