Driving east along Idaho's Interstate 90, as you come around the bend at mile marker 38, a stunning view of the Old Mission opens up on your right. On a bright spring day, it can even look heavenly.
The Cataldo Mission was completed from 1850-1853 by Jesuit missionaries and their native converts. Father Pierre Jean De Smet was the chief of the "Blackrobes," as the Indians called the priests. Under his command was Father Ravalli, an Italian-born religious leader who supervised the Coeur d'Alene men who with a few simple tools constructed this marvelous structure.
It was a unique and fateful circumstance that these two peoples would meet. A generation earlier, the Pend Oreille native prophet Shining Shirt predicted that light-skinned men in long black shirts would come to their people with a new religion that would change their lives. The prophecy proved correct. The missionaries were eager to (as they saw it) save the souls of the local tribes, and the Indians were just as excited to harness the spiritual power of Christianity.
For the most part, the early Jesuits were tolerant of the Indian traditions, and allowed a blend of the two cultures to develop (one of the reasons that Catholicism was more popular among the western Indians than Protestantism). Initially, the Native Americans dedicated themselves to trying to learn what the white man's book had to offer them, but at the same time retained many native beliefs and practices, sometimes in secret. As Jacqueline Peterson, author of Sacred Encounters, puts it, "convergence in the nineteenth century was not to be mistaken for conversion."
In 1924, after nearly fifty years of occupation by the Oregon Province Jesuits, the then-dilapidated mission was deeded to the Diocese of Boise. Today it is run as a state park, and each year members of the Coeur d'Alene tribe make a pilgrimage to the Old Mission to commemorate the "Coming of the Blackrobes." In 2015, the Mission will be deeded to the Coeur d'Alene tribe as part of the Diocese of Boise agreement.
For better or worse, the Cataldo Mission has become one of the symbols of the clash of religion and culture between Anglo-European expansion and the long "isolated" Native Americans of the Northwest. Manifest Destiny had political and cultural implications that neither peoples could have accurately prophesized.