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Ora Pro Nobis

On Saint Paul, Oregon.


St. Paul, Oregon, population four hundred thirty-four, claims to host the largest Independence Day rodeo west of the Mississippi. Saint Paul Catholic Church, for which the town is named, claims to be the oldest Catholic church west of the Mississippi, excluding the Spanish missions. I’m not sure if either is true, but what I do know to be true is that my home parish was once the seat of the second-oldest diocese in the United States.

Few know this, even among my fellow Catholic Oregonians. I remember proudly announcing this fact to my third-grade religion class after learning about Baltimore (the oldest diocese) and being met with polite murmurs of doubt. But I knew it to be true even as a young girl, thanks in part to the informational plaque tucked away by the bathrooms in the back of the church—and also because of my dad’s unceasing patience in sharing the history of our parish. He frequently mixed parish history with prayer as he led us around the church after Mass or took us to pray in the cemetery. Almost without fail during our visits there, he would pause at a large white cross in the center of the cemetery, bow his head, and pray, “Bishop François Norbert Blanchet, ora pro nobis.”

Blanchet was the long-awaited answer to the prayers of early settlers in the region. Just a few years after Lewis and Clark, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent fur trappers to reap the Willamette Valley’s bounty of beaver pelts. By 1836 many of these frontiersmen, who were mostly French Canadians, desired to have their marriages with the local Native American women blessed and their children baptized. In a profound expression of their longing, they built a log cabin church that same year and sent a letter to the bishop of Manitoba requesting a priest.

It would be three years before Blanchet arrived to consecrate the church. Anti-Catholic resistance from the Hudson’s Bay Company delayed the missionaries’ arrival south of the Columbia River, but Blanchet and Father Modeste Demers, both French Canadians, finally arrived at St. Paul, where they celebrated the first Mass in what is now Oregon. One is reminded of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop: the immensity of the journey, the vastness of the territory, and the intense need for these men of God to come to what really was the end of the earth.

Like the good bishop of that story, Blanchet was recalled to civilization to be consecrated archbishop, as Pope Gregory XVI had elevated the former apostolic vicariate to a proper archdiocese. When Blanchet came back from Québec in 1846, his archdiocese reached from what is now Portland to modern-day Idaho and Montana. He remained faithful to his mission, and even though by the time of his death in 1883 the seat had been transferred to the growing urban area farther north, Blanchet returned to Saint Paul, where he lies buried in the heart of the graveyard.

My own ancestors who first settled in the area are not buried in Saint Paul’s consecrated ground. They, like the management at the Hudson Bay Company before them, were intensely anti-Catholic, and indeed anti-Christian. They were fierce Prussian immigrants, and they devoted themselves to Freemasonry. My dad would also take us to pray at their graves in the local cemetery, which lies set back from the road, surrounded by our neighbor’s farmland and our forest. I learned easily to identify their graves by the strange Masonic symbols adorning their ostentatious headstones.

According to my dad and some letters my mom discovered in a trunk in our home—thankfully most of the six generations who have lived there before me kept such things—the faith took root in our family when my great-great-grandfather converted on his deathbed. As one letter notes, he was moved by a desire to be reunited with the wife and infant son who had died before him.

The following generations have largely remained Catholic, and many later members of my family have been baptized and buried at the old mission. The same devout if rather stern priest baptized nearly all my siblings at Saint Paul. Under Father Borho’s jurisdiction, my grandmother returned two large guardian angel statues which she had rescued from an over-enthusiastic cleaning of the church. Before they returned to their rightful places flanking the altar, where they stand today, they stood watch in my dad’s childhood bedroom.

I’m not sure where else Father Charles Borho served before he spent his last days as an active priest at Saint Paul, but I still wonder over the story of his vocation. As he told a good family friend, he was set to depart for the Pacific theater during World War II. After he spent his last leave visiting his family, a delayed train caused him to miss the departure with the rest of his unit. Every single one died in the same battle. He took this as a sign from God, and he became a priest.

During the same war, Saint Paul received the near-miraculous grace of not losing a single member. Many attribute this gift to the twenty-four-hour Eucharistic Adoration organized by parishioners to pray for their safety. My sister heard this story from a member of her Bible study, which was itself organized by the current parish priest. A kind and serious man who studied Russian literature in college, he possesses a strong devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist and has once again started offering regular Adoration.

The community remains very tight-knit to this day. Five of my six older sisters have been married at Saint Paul, but no one has married into Saint Paul. This, along with my parents’ decision to educate their conspicuously large family somewhere other than Saint Paul’s parochial school, and to supplement our catechesis at a Dominican parish in Portland, has perhaps contributed to a lingering sense of separateness from the community. The town is small, and the parish even smaller, meaning such differences often felt more pronounced.

The widespread lockdowns in 2020 actually strengthened my family’s involvement with the parish. They certainly helped me become more grateful for her continued ministry. I, like so many others, found that the loss of the ability to receive the sacraments regularly heightened my appreciation for them. While many churches in Portland were obliged to comply with stricter lockdown rules, Saint Paul was allowed to open up earlier than most. Even more than my dad’s frequent tributes to the early settlers and missionaries, it was regularly attending Saint Paul during this time that finally opened my eyes to the immensity of their sacrifice. My dad had gently pointed it out so many times before, but I understand now: I owe a significant part of my faith to them.

My parents continue to witness to these missionaries’ sacrifice, as they have quietly and diligently led us in the faith. Even through such seemingly small actions as taking us to pray at the cemetery or telling us these stories, my dad continues their work. In the far corner of Saint Paul’s cemetery, in its own stand of trees, lies a single stone inscribed with the names of the Sisters Notre Dame de Namur. These courageous women arrived from Belgium in 1844 and opened a school for girls. The school no longer exists, but the fruit of their work remains. Just as at the grave of Bishop Blanchet, my dad will say their names and have us pray after each one, “Ora pro nobis.”

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Tess Owen is a senior at Hillsdale College, where she is studying English and practicing journalism. She was an intern at The Lamp in summer 2023.