The Western United States is full of surprises — breathtaking vistas, deserted ghost towns, fascinating stories that prompt an “I didn’t know that!” from us as we explore remote nooks and crannies. Get off on any small road, and chances are you will find something unexpected. That is exactly what happens to us in Cataldo, Idaho, site of the Coeur d’Alene Mission.
Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the landing on the eponymous river, the tiny 160-year-old Coeur d’Alene mission building looks out over land once farmed by Native Americans. Today, it is a National Monument. The wattle and daub structure contains not a single nail. To build the mission, large hand-cut logs were stacked and interwoven with lattices of saplings and grass. Then the entire structure was caked with mud. To decorate the interior one foot thick walls, old newspapers were hand-painted and pasted on. Strips of fabric were also used to add touches here and there. The interior
color strikes us immediately. It is not painted. Instead, the blue coloring of the walls comes from pressing local huckleberries into the wood of the structure. Other flourishes include chandeliers made from tin cans and hand-carved wooden statues.
Next to the chapel stands the parish house, a two-story structure dating to 1887 (the original burned down). The upstairs was used as sleeping quarters and the downstairs for daily activities.
Although the Church was built in 1853 by the Coeur d’Alene tribe, the mission was in the making for many years before that. The tribe had heard from others about powerful medicine men in black robes with a book and wanted one for themselves. A delegation was sent to St Louis to ask and in 1842, Pierre Jean de Smet, a Jesuit, arrived at the boat landing. The relationship between the Mission and the Coeur d’Alene tribe was a harmonious one perhaps because years earlier Chief Circling Raven had a vision of the black robes and their new religion and had spoken positively about them.
Stop at the Visitors Center for a fascinating video about the Coeur d’Alene Mission and life in the area. Then wander up the hill to the little weather-beaten church where you will be asked to remove your shoes to enter.
Don’t miss the tiny cemetery at the bottom of the hill. Over 300 are buried here but few markers remain. One grave that still has a tombstone belongs to Louise Siuwheem Polotkin, a great grand-daughter of Chief Circling Raven, born 1800, died 1858, one of the first Coeur d’Alene to be baptized by De Smet. Nearby is the tomb of Eli Assad, a homesteader from Lebanon born 1874, died 1910, another fascinating piece of the mosaic that characterizes the western USA.
IF YOU GO
The Coeur d’Alene Mission of the Sacred Heart is located at 31732 South Mission Road, Cataldo, Idaho. Take Exit 39 on I-90 about 26 miles east of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Monument is open from 0900-1700 between April and October and 1000-15000 from November to March. Fees are $5 per car.