The Cataldo Mission – Idaho’s Oldest Building

The oldest building in Idaho is also among its most impressive. The Jesuit mission at Cataldo, built between 1850 and 1853 for the Coeur d’Alene tribe, has survived the ages magnificently. After finishing the White Pine Scenic Byway, we toured both the church and its museum in the nearby visitor’s center.

Cataldo Mission

The Jesuits were welcome guests in Idaho, invited by the Coeur d’Alene, who hoped to share in the white man’s powerful religion. Father Pierre-John De Smet headed up the delegation and had a church built on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene river, meant to evoke the grand cathedrals of Europe. With its wooden altars painted to look like marble and chandeliers made of tin cans, Europeans might have sneered at the makeshift quality, but the church was impressive enough to the Coeur d’Alene, who came to worship in droves.

The church was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1962. It’s been left mostly untouched since its inception, and its interior is creaky and beautiful. There are a couple small exhibits, demonstrating the methods used in the church’s construction, and an audio tape on loop which plays songs and prayers from the 1800s.

The accompanying museum is also worth visiting. With items on loan from the Smithsonian, it presents a fascinating tour through the shared history of the Catholics and the Coeur d’Alene. Pictures and anecdotes describe the historic meeting of the cultures. We learned, for example, that Father De Smet was wise enough to disregard the famous inflexibility of Catholic dogma, and incorporate the pagan beliefs of the Coeur d’Alene into his teachings.

The Cataldo Mission was an unexpected highlight during our tour through Idaho. Even for the most time-constrained tourist, the museum and church ought to be worth a couple hours.

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Kimberly

    I moved here to Idaho three years ago, but haven’t had a chance to explore it.I’ve decided since finding your blog on a few outings we’ll have to take when it warms up a bit.Thanks!

  2. Diane

    My husband is a Cataldo and would like to know where the name of the church came from? Does anybody know? 

    1. Jan

      I’m curious about your husband’s family. My late husband’s grandfather emigrated from Sicily to Pennsylvania and changed his name from Cataldo to Catalde, evidently to avoid some level of persecution of Italians during that time. At some point the next generation made their way to Southern California where my husband grew up. Wonder if our husbands were related!

  3. Vince Burns

    The Mission at Cataldo is Idaho’s must see artifact.
    The history of the Indian mission settlements is intriguing…what would America be like today if the Jesuits had been allowed to pursue their vision??

  4. Madeleine Wesala

    We always go to Cataldo Mission on our travels. It and it’s location are a step out if time… absolute Faith inspiring. Take good care of this Holy place, Idaho……

  5. Dollene Joy Grow Schulze

    I love reading all this Idaho wonderful history! I was born, raised and educated in Idaho, yet I keep learning additional history all the time.

  6. Miranda

    You can also pick up the comprehensive History of the Mission through Amazon. It is entitled “Wilderness Cathedral: The story of Idaho’s Oldest Building” by Jake A. Eberlein, MA It was published recently, in 2016 and contains new, unearthed archival history!

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