The Catholic Church has been a part of the Pacific Northwest’s history since the 1840’s. Early missionaries brought the Christian faith to indigenous peoples, fur traders, and settlers. Learn the story of how the Catholic Church has been a beacon of light, healing, and education in Western Washington as part of American history.
“Make Disciples of All Nations”
The Catholic Church in Western Washington owes its origins to the many great men and women of faith who responded as disciples of Jesus to bring the Gospel to the Pacific Northwest. They ministered to both indigenous peoples as well as European and American frontiersmen. Their works of evangelization, education, health care, and social formation laid the foundation for our current society. We are who we today because we stand on their shoulders and benefit from their effort.
Learn more about the early missionaries and how these outstanding women and men of faith gave their lives in love of God and neighbor.
Here’s a brief history of how the Church in Western Washington has grown over the years and some of the key players and helping that growth take place.
On May 31, 1850, Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Nesqually in an area of the Pacific Northwest that was then Oregon Territory. The new French-Canadian bishop, Augustin Magliore Alexandre Blanchet, was transferred from Walla Walla to the new See. This action was taken in response to a request by the Archbishop of Oregon City, Francis Norbert Blanchet. The Church in the Pacific Northwest began as a missionary Church and would remain such until the 1920’s.
The first priests had already arrived in 1838 with the Hudson Bay Company to provide ministry to French Catholics in the fur and trading business. These first missionaries (Fr. Demers and then Fr. F.N. Blanchet) were sent from Quebec and stationed at Fort Vancouver. Their ministry extended to the Native American tribes as well as the French Catholics. The primary ministries were multi-week itinerant Missions for the faithful and their families which included catechesis, liturgies, and various talks combined with Confessions and instruction in the moral life.
In 1841 the Jesuits, headed by Peter DeSmet, first arrived in the eastern portion of the Northwest Territory.
An Apostolic Vicariate was created in 1843 and administered by Francis Norbert Blanchet who was also appointed bishop and ordained in Quebec in 1845. It was vast and included all the territory between the Mexican province of California (south), the Russian province of Alaska (north), and from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. This Vicariate become the ecclesiastical province of Oregon City in 1846 with five districts placed under the three dioceses (Oregon City, Vancouver Island, and Walla Walla). In all, there were an estimated 6,000 Catholics of whom approximately 5,000 were Native Americans. Also in 1846 the US and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty which separated the previously shared territory at the 49th parallel.
Augustine Blanchet was ordained in Quebec in 1846 and left for the Oregon Country in 1847 with another priest and two seminarians and arrived in Walla Walla the same year. His first days were filled with tense tragedy has he dealt with the aftermath of the Whitman Massacre at the hands of a small band of Cayuse Indians who were angry due to deaths from a measles outbreak and who suspected their lands were in danger of being settled. Blanchet secured the release of several dozen hostages bringing them safely to Fort Vancouver. Blanchet continued to the town of St. Paul and attended the first provincial Council of Oregon City where they recommended that Nesqually be established as a diocese and Blanchet become the bishop. Blanchet’s concern for all people, especially the vulnerable, was demonstrated when he ministered to five Cayuse men unjustly condemned to death by the territorial officials and baptized them just prior to their execution on June 3, 1850 in Oregon City.
Anti-Catholic sentiments were strong in the Pacific northwest and Blanchet was prevented from returning to Walla Walla by the superintended of Indian Affairs at the Dalles. The Oregon Provisional Legislature was actually considering a law that would have expelled all Catholic clergy from Oregon. The law was fueled by and early protestant missionary, Henry Spalding, who accused the Jesuits and Blanchet of providing guns to the Indians and encouraging the Whitman Massacre at Waiilatpu. Protection for Catholics was strengthened when the US Congress established the territorial government of Oregon in 1848 and ended the provisional government. That same year, however, tragedy struck when the Vancouver sank at the mouth of the Columbia and all the provisions for the Catholic missions for the next year were lost.
The California Gold Rush of 1848 and 1849 further strained the population of the Oregon Country as many fled in the hopes for greater prosperity.
The request to create the Diocese of Nesqually was granted in 1850 and Blanchet moved to Vancouver, WA which would become the See of the new diocese. He faced a number of challenges including lack of funds, personnel, distance from other Catholic centers to the east, wars between various Native American tribes and the Federal Government, anti-Catholic sentiment, and shifting populations. The area was being rapidly settled thanks to the Oregon Donation Land Law of 1850, the Civil War of 1861-1865, and the Homestead Act of 1862. Blanchet sought to protect the Native American’s through education so they might survive the inevitable consequences of immigration, settlement, and assignment to reservations. The Euro-American population increased from 8,000 in 1850 to 30,000 in 1855. As a result, Washington Territory was created in 1853.
The first Sisters of Providence arrived in Oregon Country in 1852 but found little to warrant their stay. They departed, along with some Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, for San Francisco and then to Chile where they established a foundation that continues to this day. In 1856 five additional Sisters of Providence arrived among whom was Mother Joseph. They eventually settled in Vancouver and began Providence Academy in a 16×24 building which became the first parochial school in the diocese. The sisters also took care of orphans and the infirm. Homes for the elderly and disabled were added in subsequent years. These were the first welfare institutions in Washington. By 1853 there were 53 Sisters of Providence in Washington and only 17 priests.
The ministries of the Sisters of Providence were extensive and vast. In addition to the boarding and day school, opened in Vancouver in 1857, they also opened a home for the mentally disturbed from 1857-1868, a hospital from 1858, and an orphanage from 1861-1923.
In 1875 they expanded their ministries outside of Vancouver and established more hospitals including Providence (Seattle) in 1877, St. Mary’s (Walla Walla) in 1880, Sacred Heart (Spokane) in 1886, St. Peter’s (Olympia) in 1887, St. John’s (Port Townsend) in 1890, and St. Elizabeth’s (Yakima) in 1891. They also carried out charitable ministries of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick.
In addition to their medical ministries, the Sisters of Providence also established schools. In addition to Providence Academy (Vancouver), they started St. Vincent Academy (Walla Walla) in 1864, St. Amable (now St. Michael in Olympia) in 1881, and St. Joseph Academy (Yakima) in 1875. For a brief time (1863-1875) they also operated St. Joseph Academy in Steilacoom, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy (1876-1898) in Cowlitz, and Our Lady of Seven Dolors School for Indians in Tulalip (1868-1901).
The few priests covered vast areas and travelled extensively in the early years to care for the needs of the Catholic faithful in various settlements. In 1865, two priests (Fr. Cherles Vary and Fr. F.X. Prefontaine) covered settlements in Cowlitz, Olympia, Seattle, Port Townsend, Whidbey Island, Port Madison, Port Gamble, and Whatcom from their home base in Steilacoom. By 1867 Prefontaine had relocated to Seattle which he believed would become the population center of the area (an opinion not shared by Blanchet who considered Seattle to be a “mission center that was a lost cause.”)
The Church continued to grow. In 1857 there were 18 missionaries, eight chapels and churches, and 3,918 Catholics. By 1870 there were 13 missionary priests, 14 chapels and churches, and 7,000 Catholics. The Providence Sisters grew in numbers from 11 in 1861 to 53 in 1877.
Fr. Aegidius Junger became Bishop of Nesqually in 1879 and served until 1895. He had come as a missionary priest from Germany to Washington in the early 1860’s so he already knew the area. The completion of the railway from Puget Sound to the east dramatically increased the Euro-American population from 75,000 to approximately 400,000 (the Catholic population grew from 12,000 to 42,000). Churches and chapels grew from 23 to 82 and diocesan clergy increased from 10 to 38 with an additional 24 religious order priests. Women religious increased from 60 to 286 which included 148 Sisters of Providence as well as 27 Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who had arrived in 1880. Benedictine nuns, Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace (Newark), Good Shepherd Sisters, and Visitation Sisters, Dominican sisters, and Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle also arrived during this period. In addition to the Jesuits who were already serving in the area, other communities of priests also arrived during Junger’s tenure including the Redemptorists (1891) and the Benedictines (1891). Junger also oversaw the building of the new St. James Cathedral in Vancouver which replaced the much simpler wooden structure inherited by Blanchet. The new Cathedral was completed in 1885.
The Sisters of St. Francis arrived in 1888 and joined the Sisters of Providence in establishing educational ministries such as St. George Indian School. They also established medical ministries such as St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma (1891) and in 1921 they took over St. Ann Day Home (Tacoma) for the care of infants, unwed mothers, and orphaned and abandoned girls.
- The Dominican Sisters staffed a hospital in Aberdeen beginning in 1890.
- The Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle started an orphanage in Spokane in 1890 as well.
- Also in 1890, the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Bellingham and started St. Joseph Hospital.
- The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary arrived in Seattle in 1880 and opened Holy Names Academy. In 1894 they also assumed teaching responsibilities at Sacred Heart Parish School, in 1906 they taught at School of the Immaculate, and in 1907 at St. Joseph School for boys. In 1923 they taught at three additional parish schools in Seattle: Anne, St. Mary, and St. Patrick.
In 1896 Edward John O’Dea was consecrated the 3rd Bishop of Nesqually by Archbishop William Gross of Oregon City in St. James Cathedral in Vancouver. O’Dea was the first Bishop of Washington who was born in the United States. He was actually the first “westerner” raised to the episcopacy in the United States. Under his leadership, the Diocese of Nesqually was transformed from a European immigrant, frontier mission Church, into a stable US Catholic Diocese. He also oversaw the transformation from the Diocese of Nesqually to the Diocese of Seattle. In 1896, there were 42,000 Catholics, 42 churches with resident priests, 69 priests total, and 263 women religious which covered the entire state of Washington. When O’Dea died in 1932, the Diocese of Seattle covered less than half of its original territory (the Diocese of Spokane was created in 1914) yet had a population of 100,000 Catholics, 113 diocesan and 119 religious order priests, 1031 women religious and 89 churches with resident pastors. O’Dea saw transformations in infrastructure and civic life as well since he began his episcopacy on horseback travelling trails throughout the area and ended his tenure in the early days of air transport and enjoyed travel in train and automobile.
O’Dea began in the midst of economic depression that caused the collapse of 5 banks in Spokane and 14 banks in Tacoma. It even affected the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads both of whom went bankrupt. These circumstances led many to flee the area during the Klondike gold rush of 1897-98. Despite the dire financial conditions, O’Dea was able to pay off the remaining $25,000 debt on the new St. James Cathedral built by Junger. O’Dea also took on aggressive building projects in the midst of financial woes and established churches, hospitals, and schools. He also stimulated the spiritual life of parishes through missions, retreats, and other devotional practices.
Seattle grew significantly during this time and O’Dea saw that it would become the center of population and commerce in the Puget Sound area. There were only 3,553 people in Seattle in 1880 but by 1890 there were 42,837. By 1900 there would be 80,871 and by 1920 there would be 315,312. O’Dea moved to Seattle in 1903 and in 1905 he laid the cornerstone for the new St. James Cathedral which was dedicated in 1907 and the name of the diocese was changed to Seattle instead of Nesqually. There were only four Catholic churches in Seattle when O’Dea arrived in 1903 but there 26 churches by the time he died in 1932. Given the growth in the Puget Sound area and throughout western Washington, it is no surprise that O’Dea recommended to Rome the creation of a new diocese (Spokane) which was created in 1914.
During O’Dea’s episcopacy the population of Washington quadrupled from around 400,000 in 1896 to nearly 1.6 million in 1932. Many of the immigrants were connected to the transcontinental railroad and came from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark as well as eastern Europe and Asia (especially Japan and some Chinese). It was also during this time that increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants began to arrive joining those who previously came along with people from Chili and Peru who came to participate in the short-lived Pacific Northwest gold rush of the 1860’s. The Mexican immigrants of the early 20th century worked mainly in the expanding agricultural industry. This mix of languages and cultures enriched Washington with a variety of highly skilled laborers who imported their specializations from around the world. Already in the first years of the 20th century, Seattle had newspapers published in Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Japanese, and German (these were in addition to Chinese and Japanese newspapers published since the 1890’s).
St. Francis Xavier Cabrini sent the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to Seattle in 1903 to minister to the growing Italian population in this area. The visited the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, and brought back inactive Catholics to the practice of their faith. The Sisters opened Our Lady of Mount Virgin School that same year. In 1918 they relocated to the shores of Lake Washington. In 1915 they purchased the Perry Hotel and transformed it to become the Columbus Hospital. The opened Sacred Heart Orphanage in 1924 and St. Paul’s Infant Home in 1929. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini lived in Seattle for ten years and it was here that she became a US Citizen.
It should be noted that women religious outnumbered priests by 5 to 1 during this time in Seattle’s history. Their ministries of education, health care, and charitable outreach were the foundation of the Catholic Church’s public and parish life in western Washington. They cared for both indigenous Indian populations as well as the rapidly growing immigrant population. They also survived the economic trials of market collapse, mass exodus, world war, and strong anti-Catholic prejudice.
O’Dea’s time also saw the rise of many Catholic fraternal societies in western Washington including the Knights of Columbus (1902). These societies served as parish-based insurance organizations that provided for families during times of sickness and death. Other organizations include the Young Men’s Institute, the Young Ladies institute, the Catholic Daughters of America, the Catholic Order of Foresters (and the Ladies Auxiliary). In addition to fraternal societies, other parish-based lay organizations developed as well including the Altar Society, the Holy Name Society, Scouting, and sports groups.
As Catholics in western Washington became more established and successful, the need for fraternal insurance societies decreased. Instead, parishes established organizations that were more social and charitable in nature. These include the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (1921), the Society of St. Vincent the Paul (1920).
Movements that fostered spiritual growth also developed during this time including the University of Washington Newman Club established in 1908 and the Laymen’s Retreat movement in 1918.
These movements were accompanied by others such as Holy Angels Society, Boys Sanctuary, Children of Mary, St. John Berchman’s Sodality, Sodality of Mary, and the League of the Sacred Heart. These additional movements tended to be based on particular age groups, marital status, and sex.
In 1911 O’Dea merged two independent Catholic publications (The Catholic Northwest and the Progress) and created the Catholic Northwest Progress as an official diocesan newspaper. The publication was focused on defense of the faith, education of Catholics, and integration of immigrant populations into the local Church and community.
O’Dea led the Church through the years of World War I (1914-1917) and oversaw the rapid expansion and industrialization of western Washington in the post-war years.
Years between WWI until Great Depression were a time of great social turmoil and conflict especially with labor unions which were encouraged by O’Dea’s promotion of Rerum Novarum. Other factors were at work as well included the role of Catholic Schools and Prohibition as well as newly arrived immigrants. Few people were in agreement with the Church’s position on all of these issues. It required very clear communication and strategic thinking to navigate these issues in the public forum.
The Maryknoll Fathers came to Seattle at O’Dea’s invitation in 1920 to minister to the growing Japanese population. Maryknoll sisters arrived the same year to assist with education for the children.
In 1921 O’Dea celebrated his 25th Anniversary as a bishop and the local Knights of Columbus gave him $35,0000 which he used to purchase the bishop’s residence (today known as Connolly House). O’Dea also initiated a flurry of building projects that same year including three new churches and nine schools. By 1923 there were thirty parochial schools. In 1924 O’Dea High School was dedicated (originally known as “Cathedral High School”). In 1926 O’Dea purchased land in current day Kenmore to be the site of a new seminary and started construction in 1930 on St. Edward Seminary. The seminary was completed one year later.
Anti-Catholic sentiment was growing even stronger and became focused on the parochial school system. The bigotry was based on the false belief that one could not be a loyal American and a Catholic due to their allegiance to the Pope. This movement culminated in 1924 in the form of “Initiative 49” which would compel all children to attend public schools and outlaw parochial schools. The initiative was defeated that same year thanks to a coordinated effort led by O’Dea and Catholic laymen to educate Catholics and non-Catholics (especially government and business leaders), register Catholic voters in parishes, inclusion of recent immigrants, and ecumenical/inter-religious cooperation.
Edward O’Dea died in 1932. The diocese was heavily in debt from the many building projects and the country was now well into the Great Depression. Approximately 200,000 people arrived in the Northwest seeking refuge from economic hardship and the Dust Bowl.
In 1933 Gerald Shaughnessy became the fourth bishop of Seattle. He was from the East Coast (Boston) and served as a priest in the Society of Mary (Marist). He had worked in the office of the Apostolic Delegate prior to his appointment to Seattle. He was ordained in Washington at the National Shrine and then came to Seattle for his Installation. He aggressively recruited priests and women religious from other areas of the United States and Europe. He promoted vocations systematically throughout the diocese which led to the organization and establishment of the Serra Club in Seattle in 1935. He was a skilled administrator and helped lead the diocese to a better financial position. He also saw the need to position ministries so that they could serve the growing population. In 1933 Washington State had 1,600,000 people. By 1950 when Shaughnessy died, there were approximately 2,400,000.
Despite the many educational ministries in the diocese, many Catholic children were not in the parochial school system. Shaughnessy initiated the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to care for the faith development of those students. Shaughnessy also established Catholic Charities as a diocesan agency to meet the needs of the poor.
The beginnings of World War were felt in Seattle as Japanese citizens, including parishioners from Our Lady Queen of Martyr’s parish, were place in internment camps in 1942. The Maryknoll pastor, Fr. Leopold Tibesar, went with his parishioners and lived in the camps as well where he continued his ministry. Shaughnessy spoke out against the internment actions but it not alter the practice. Sadly, when the war ended those interred in the camps had nothing to return so the parish closed.
Seattle’s population continued to grow during World War II from the influx of both military personnel and civilian workers. This influx included large numbers of African-Americans which warranted an additional cultural ministry in the Northwest.
Shaughnessy suffered a massive debilitating stroke in 1945 and he died in 1950. He had successfully rescued the diocese from the staggering debt and put on a course for a solid financial future.
Thomas Connolly was appointed coadjutor bishop of Seattle in 1948. He previously served as an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco. He succeeded Shaughnessy as bishop of Seattle and led the Centenary Anniversary celebrations for the diocese in 1950. The centennial year was celebrated with a diocesan-wide mission crusade during involving some forty preachers coverall parishes during the Lenten season. The centennial Mass itself was celebrated in the newly renovated St. James Cathedral and attended by the Apostolic Delegate, Cicognani. Connolly took the occasion of the Delegate’s visit to solidify plans to create Yakima as a third diocese in the State of Washington. Yakima was formally created in 1951 and Seattle became an Archdiocese.
- Connolly: 1950-1975
- Hunthausen: 1975-1991
- Murphy: 1991-1997
- Brunett: 1997-2010
- Sartain: 2010-2019
- Etienne: 2019-Present