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St. Paul’s Mission

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St. Paul’s Church
c. 1847, Father Joseph Joset; 1869 relocation, Sxoielpi (Colville Indians); 1939 reconstruction, Father Paul M. Georgen. Approx. 0.19 miles northwest of terminus of St. Paul Mission Rd., 3 miles northwest of Kettle Falls.
  • (Photograph by Broncoman, August 2006)

St. Paul’s Mission Church symbolizes the establishment and eventual spread of European-American culture and ideas into the Pacific Northwest. As with other early European-American missions, forts, and settlements, it also represents the decline of indigenous lifeways in the region. The mostly reconstructed church is located in the sparsely populated northeastern region of the state on a small peninsula near the Columbia River—the only surviving reminder of a once busy mission. Set within a clearing surrounded by a thicket of Ponderosa pine trees, the church is approached along a dirt road near present-day Kettle Falls in remote Stevens County. It is perhaps the most notable physical example of western religious settlement in Washington.

The first recorded attempts to convert natives to Christianity in the region happened in the early 1830s. Successive traveling parties of Catholic and Protestant missionaries passed through nearby Colville en route to the more heavily populated Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory, where they had been sent either on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company or the American Board of Foreign Missions. Along the way, they encountered the Sxoielpi Indians, a mostly hunting, gathering, and fishing tribe whose numbers were approximately 350 when conversion attempts began. Such practices were largely unsuccessful until 1839, however, when Catholic missionaries orchestrated the first baptism of a Sxoielpi tribal member. When Belgian Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet arrived in 1845, enough converts existed to build a structure where organized worship could take place. The establishment of the mission is most commonly associated with DeSmet, a Jesuit missionary responsible for spreading gospel throughout the Pacific Northwest and founding a handful of missions during his journey westward (including St. Mary’s Mission in present day Stevensville, Montana, and the Mission of the Sacred Heart in Cataldo, Idaho).

Before erecting the first house of worship at St. Paul’s Mission in 1845 (apparently little more than a “chapel of boughs”), DeSmet chose a location on a rocky promontory overlooking natural falls along the Columbia River where approximately 800 indigenous peoples would gather annually to take advantage of salmon runs. This location, some seven miles north of the current building site, was near an existing fur trading post established some years before by French-Canadian settlers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. A temporary wooden church built by Father Anthony Ravalli (believed to have been made of logs covered with cedar bark) was erected next to the chapel of boughs in 1845. Neither structure has survived.

In 1847, a more permanent building for Christian worship, adjacent to the earlier structures, was erected under the supervision of Father Joseph Joset, and it is to this building that the origins of the current edifice for St. Paul’s Mission can be traced. The one-and-a-half-story wooden church was built of traditional post-and-beam construction common to other buildings erected in the Pacific Northwest under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company, including those at Fort Nisqually in Tacoma. According to a 1939 report issued prior to the reconstruction of the church, the timber connections for this structure were apparently more sophisticated than the woodworking techniques used at Fort Nisqually. The building, however, may have featured a connection to French Canadian construction techniques given the proximity of the fur trading post and the presence of French Canadian settlers.

As supervised by Joset, the church was much larger than the earlier structures at the site and featured hand-hewn trusses, a flat roof covered with cedar shakes, and squared and fitted timbers fastened together by wooden pegs. A priest’s house and several outbuildings also joined the church, making the settlement into more of a religious complex akin to a mission. Here, for several years, priests ministered the gospel to the Sxoielpi, taught them agricultural practices, and encouraged a more sedentary lifestyle.

Attempts at conversion to Christianity at St. Paul’s Mission occasionally were met with Sxoielpi resistance. In the 1850s, the discovery of gold brought an influx of white settlers to the area—along with liquor and foreign diseases, including smallpox. This may have contributed to native resentment towards the missionaries and their gospel, and rising hostility between Indians and white settlers gradually rendered the mission somewhat ineffective, forcing its closure between 1859 and 1863. In 1869, the church was apparently transported by natives from its rocky promontory to its present site, seven miles to the south. Yet church leaders failed to generate significant numbers of new converts, and by the mid-1870s the missionary imperative had largely fallen away. The last known service at the mission was held on August 14, 1875, after which the church was subsequently abandoned and entered into a long period of decline.

By 1901, the church contained only three walls, half its roof, no windows or doors, and decayed floors. A cross, once gracing the roof, had fallen to the ground, and in 1910, a fire caused further damage to the building. The church nonetheless survived in a ruined state until 1939, when Father Paul M. Georgen raised money for a “restoration” to return it to its original appearance. Following drawings from a 1936 recording project by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), which imagined the church in a pre-ruined state, Georgen’s restoration resulted in a simple, elongated, log-frame building with wooden hinged doors, wooden planks, and no exterior ornament except a new cross on the roof. The interior was left spare, with little detail save for tongue-and-groove notching in the wood. It is this mostly reconstructed building—completed in 1940 but not at the original site—that stands today.

The reconstructed church, 32 feet wide by 42 feet long and 20.5 feet tall, retained the existing walls and some of the timber columns supporting the roof. A gable roof was added to assist with snow and water runoff, and ceiling beams were supported by curved “ships-knees” attached to the walls with wooden pegs. Four window openings in the facade, long since devoid of actual windows, were replaced with wooden shutters, three doorways (including the main door) were added, and the cross was returned to the roof—now perched atop the gable. Builders involved in the reconstruction apparently examined the surviving materials and attempted to replicate them, as well as their mode of joinery and construction, as closely as possible. Local donations contributed to much of the reconstruction funding, while materials and labor were provided by the Works Progress Administration.

As a mostly reconstructed building, St. Paul’s Mission Church raises several questions about the constitution of historic significance in the built environment, most notably whether partially or completely reconstructed buildings should be considered significant—even those that are more than 50 years old. St. Paul’s Mission is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but trying to recover the original appearance of the building is challenging. Not only was Georgen’s 1940 reconstruction of the church based upon drawings that were themselves reconstructions, but it was also relocated from its original site—which has not existed since the rising waters of the Columbia River submerged it following the 1949 construction of Grand Coulee Dam. To historic preservationists today paying close attention to criteria that demand original sites and minimal reconstruction for eligibility on historic register lists, St. Paul’s Mission Church would seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion.

Yet the building’s very relocation and reconstruction raise preservation questions that, in themselves, are significant. The current version of the building at its current site may be less representative of Washington’s settlement history and the conversion of the Sxoielpi natives to Christianity than either of the two original structures, the existing church at its original location, the relocated church before the 1910 fire, or the relocated church before its 1939–1940 reconstruction. Yet the current church has existed at its current site for more than 75 years, a longer period than any other in the building’s lengthy history. Furthermore, the entire original town of Kettle Falls was relocated to higher ground when it was buried following the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1940, so the original site can no longer be recovered anyway. Whether these facts lend more significance to the rebuilt, or reconstructed, built environment is certainly open to debate. Either way, the mission—with the reconstructed and relocated mission church as its only surviving representative—was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 20, 1974, and the fact of its reconstruction, while noted in the nomination, did not prevent its listing. Then, as now, St. Paul’s Mission remains a premier architectural example of a crucial period of settlement in Washington and the Pacific Northwest.

References

Baeder, Louis, “St. Paul’s Mission,” Stevens County, Washington. Historic American Building Survey, 1936. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. WA-33).

Himmelburg, Claudia, “St. Paul’s Mission.” Community Cultural Resource Survey, Survey-Inventory Form, 1980. Colville, Stevens County Planning Office, Washington.

McMillan, J.C., “St. Paul’s Mission,” Stevens County, Washington. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1969. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington D.C.

“St. Paul’s Mission.” National Park Service. Accessed June 29, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/.

Writing Credits

Author: 
J. Philip Gruen
Coordinator: 
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin
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Data

Timeline

  • 1847

    Design and construction
  • 1869

    Relocation
  • 1939

    Reconstruction

Citation

J. Philip Gruen, "St. Paul’s Mission", [Kettle Falls, Washington], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WA-01-065-0016.

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