Thursday, December 06, 2012

Channeling P.J. De Smet

Descended from four sets of Mormon great-great-great-great grandfathers who were among the first to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 through a gap along the Wasatch, my grandsons are not the first to attend one of many Catholic parochial schools there.

My mother, their great-grandmother, was sent there from Idaho to attend a Catholic high school in an unsuccessful attempt to cool her relationship in Idaho with my father as he prepared to enter the US Army and head to Europe in the closing months of WWII.

Ironically, as they made preparations for a vanguard journey the following year, those Mormon pioneer ancestors of ours gathered around a Catholic priest when he passed through the 1846 staging area they had established along both sides of the Missouri River in the land of Native Americans such as the Omaha and the Oto near Council Bluffs along the border of Iowa with Nebraska.

This Catholic priest was Belgian-born Pierre-Jean De Smet, or “P.J” as he signed his correspondence, and he had paused on a return leg of one of his many journeys throughout the upper Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest that began in 1842, four years after he had established a mission for Native Americans at Council Bluffs.

Before he would die in St. Louis nearly thirty years after his encounter with my ancestors, De Smet would travel over 180,000 miles by horseback and on foot during repeated trips across the northern Rockies, often at the invitation of various tribes of Native Americans who called Catholic explorer/missionaries as “Black Robes.”  In between expeditions, he would travel back to Europe eight different times both to recoup and to raise funds.

He had volunteered to come to America in 1821 just as the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, was sworn to a second term and the US purchase of Florida from Spain was finalized.  He was ordained a priest in 1827.

Beginning in 1831 four successive delegations of Rocky Mountain tribes of Native Americans, including Salish Flatheads and Coeur d’Alenes traveled to St. Louis to request Jesuit missionaries. Finally, an 1839 encounter with Father Des Smet brought success.

One cannot travel the edge of the upper Great Plains or the Rocky Mountain portions of Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho and Washington without being reminded repeatedly of the influence of De Smet beginning with his traverse along the fault line of my youth into the very Yellowstone-Teton nook of my origins.

There, along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in the corner of what is Idaho between Wyoming and Montana today, Father P.J. De Smet, of the Society of Jesuits, first joined up with the Flatheads to continue his journey over the Bitterroots to their homeland.

A trip last summer with my daughter and two grandsons to our annual lake-side rendezvous with family along the eastern Washington-northern Idaho, took us past the oldest building in Idaho.

Cataldo Mission, as it was known when I was growing up in Idaho, was designated a state historic site and park in 1975, during my early years in community-destination marketing on behalf of nearby Spokane.

Coincidentally, this was during a short period when Spokane took Coeur d’Alene under its wing until that community could form a marketing organization.

The distinctive building (shown in the photo in this blog) was erected in 1850 on a rise above the Coeur d’Alene River along what is now I 90, twenty-six miles from the town and lake bearing the same name.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart, as it was known, was established a year after De Smet had first met with the Coeur d' Alenes and established the Mission of St. Joseph along the river 35 miles south which he had given the same name.  However, the first location proved flood prone.

Less than a decade later the military used De Smet’s route to forge a wagon road past the mission and across the Bitterroots known as the Mullan Road after the officer who engineered the route, one that was later followed by I 90.

Father De Smet formed several missions on that first journey west of the Rockies and worked in a resupply trip to Vancouver, B.C. before heading back to St. Louis and his encounter in route with my Mormon ancestors as they prepared to head west.

Cataldo is the name of another “Black Robe” who, following some years later along the paths worn by De Smet, would establish a mission among the Upper Spokane Indians and would establish the first church in the nearby city of the same name about the same time one was first established in Salt Lake City.

Cataldo also initiated the humble beginnings of Gonzaga University in Spokane where I would attend law school at night beginning in 1973.

I guess you could say that my grandsons are following a 166-year family tradition of learning from Catholics.

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