Exhibit shares the unique history of the Jesuits and Coeur d’Alene
Tags: Jesuit, Jesuit Father Pierre Desmet, jesuits, Native Americans
A whitewashed Catholic chapel, the Mission of the Sacred Heart, crowns a grassy knoll overlooking a broad, slow bend in the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River in Idaho’s panhandle.
The chapel is graceful and small with wooden columns across the front and a domed ceiling within. It is the oldest standing building in all of Idaho, completed in 1853 after several years of construction by Jesuit missionaries and people of the Schitsu’umsh (the present day Coeur d’Alene, “Those Who Are Found Here”) working together. The foot-thick walls are plastered with mud, wattle-and-daub style, and in places the handprints of the builders remain visible—a grace note of brown hands and white hands, two cultures, two faiths joined. And while the tribe appreciated the many spiritual teachings brought by the missionaries, a more recent Coeur d’Alene elder, Millie Nicodemus, said, “We didn’t think they’d stay!”
That delightful exclamation by Nicodemus, now deceased, is on a banner just down the hill from the chapel, where a decade of fund-raising by the tribe and others has this fall resulted in the opening of a new, $3.26 million museum as the permanent home for an exhibition, Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West. It strives to tell the full story of this encounter—the Native view as well as the white, the sorrows as well as the joys. Sacred Encounters is packed with artifacts from as far away as Europe, but it’s not static. Visitors walk through a series of “acts” or rooms in a rich audio-visual atmosphere—nature sounds and Coeur d’Alene singing fading into Gregorian chants and Latin prayer—as the exhibit creates a dynamic portrait of two cultures, two faiths colliding.
The original Sacred Encounters, which toured the U.S. and Canada, was so large—more than 7,000 square feet—that it was unable to be housed in any museum near the Coeur d’Alene. It opened at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, to the east, and also stopped at Tacoma, Washington to the west, each requiring a drive of more than five hours from the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
The unique power of Sacred Encounters, telling deep stories of the joys and the pains, the opened hearts and the disappointments, surprised viewers at the opening in Bozeman. Historian Jacqueline Peterson, recently retired from Washington State University, remembers walking into a room and, “seeing a group of elders [Flathead Salish and Coeur d’Alene] and a group of Jesuits, and they were crying together. It was a profound experience. It was sadness, and it was pride that the story was being told and [that] it was about them.”
For more information about the exhibit, call 208-682-3814. Sacred Encounters is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Old Mission State Park is just off Interstate 90 in Cataldo, Idaho (Exit 39), 58 miles east of Spokane.