Monday, April 23, 2012

Cataldo Mission

The Institute for Extended Learning sponsored a field trip to the Cataldo Mission in North Idaho. I was asked to accompany the students and explain the historical significance of the site from a Salish perspective. The church was commissioned by the Jesuit fathers in the 1850s and was largely constructed by the Coeur d'Alene Indians.

A park ranger dressed as a 'Black Robe' offered historical information about the structure of the building.

Much of the interior was designed by Father Anthony Ravalli who fashioned frontier materials to create a truly unique worship space. For example, he cut sheets of scrap tin to form simple chandeliers and altar pieces. The ceiling was dyed blue with huckleberry juice harvested from nearby mountains and pine carvings were plastered to resemble marble.

The finished chapel is definitely rustic, and yet the simplicity has a certain elegance. I'm not Catholic, but I felt closer to God in a chapel made by humble means than in the mass produced mega-churches of our day.

Cataldo is treated as an historical site, but we were told that the Black Robes even still perform mass within its walls from time time. The Coeur d'Alene also return during certain times of the year to commemorate their sacred history. I did not necessarily expect to have a spiritual experience, and yet I perceived much of my own family history and my own spiritual ancestry.

According to the museum, the Coeur d'Alene once called this mission "The House of the Great Spirit." If anyone knows the exact Salish phrase they used for this expression, please send me a message. I know how I would translate it, but I'm interested in the exact words used long ago.

One of the presentations acknowledges that the Catholic priests sometimes pressured the Salish people to abandon their indigenous practices. This reminded me of a story I once heard about twenty five years ago:

As I recall the story, a Catholic priest was evangelizing a respected Indian elder. The priest displayed a painting that showed the souls of the damned burning in hell. He said, "This is what will happen if you do not abandon your Indian medicine."

The old Indian studied the painting and said, "Do you see those people in the flames? They're all suyepi (white people). I don't see any Indians in hell, so why should I worry?"

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