When our children were young, they were well acquainted with the Little House on the Prairie books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The simple stories with clear life-lessons appealed to our son and daughter and, as we traveled in those early years, we made an effort to visit the areas highlighted in the books. One of those spots was De Smet, South Dakota, a town where Charles Ingalls and his family lived for a time.
With that background, it was interesting to me when my wife and I stopped at the Old Sacred Heart Mission near Cataldo, Idaho. We were in the early stages of a trip to the Pacific Northwest and had heard of the mission. Inside the administration building there was a small-scale museum depicting the history of the mission. In one room was a plaque honoring Father Peter John de Smet, a Jesuit missionary who is called the “Apostle to the Indians.” It was Father de Smet who chose the location for the mission.
Noticing the de Smet name, I looked at a Wikipedia article about De Smet, South Dakota, and discovered that the town was named for a Father Pierre-Jean de Smet. When Pierre-Jean is translated from the French into English, the result is Peter John. The date of death of Pierre-Jean and Peter John is the same, and both men were originally from Belgium, so it seems obvious that Pierre-Jean was Peter John, and that there is a slight connection between the Little House books and Old Sacred Heart Mission in Idaho.
The real story of the Old Sacred Heart Mission is the mission building itself. Located about 20 miles east of Couer D’Alene and one mile east of Cataldo, the building, according to the Waymarking website, is the oldest building in Idaho and the oldest surviving mission in the Pacific Northwest. The mission is included in the Old Mission State Park. The mission complex includes the mission building, a restored Parish house which serves as a museum and administration center, and a cemetery. The museum gives visitors a picture of how the missionaries lived their lives among the Native American inhabitants of the area. A walking audio tour tape is available.
The mission building was constructed between 1850 and 1853, replacing an earlier building that was located in flood plain. During the time when the new building was constructed, the missionaries did not have the tools or materials available that later generations would have. The Waymarking website noted earlier contains details about the construction of the mission building. The missionaries and their helpers used what they had, and under the supervision of a Father Antonio Ravalli, the new building was built using a technique called “wattle and daub,” which involved large logs, saplings, grass and mud. The interior walls were covered with painted newspaper and fabric. Although most of the interior is now beautifully finished and furnished with more modern materials and accessories, one room has been left in its original condition, and the visitor can see the strands of grass that were used in the building’s construction.
The mission is now on the National Registry and is still used for some services and special occasions, such as weddings. The day my wife and I were there, an outdoor “flea market” was being held on the grounds, with various items for sale. For a sense of the history of the area, take the time to visit the Old Sacred Heart Mission.