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.
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.