Writing the Pacific Northwest into Canadian and U.S. Catholic History: Geography, Demographics, and Regional Religion

By Killen, Patricia O'Connell | Historical Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Writing the Pacific Northwest into Canadian and U.S. Catholic History: Geography, Demographics, and Regional Religion


Killen, Patricia O'Connell, Historical Studies


From its earliest settlement by Europeans three things have been true religiously about the Pacific Northwest (for purposes of this paper Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, Alaska): 1) the region is largely unchurched; 2) the region is religiously diverse; and, 3) the region contains substantial numbers of people who express no interest in religion at all.(1) One or more of these characteristics has been true of other regions of the United States and Canada during periods of their history, but the Pacific Northwest is distinctive because these characteristics have remained steady throughout the region's history.(2) Religious historians have not accounted lot why these regional religious characteristics have persisted. Neither have they explored how these three facts have shaped institutional and individual forms of Christianity in the Pacific Northwest. We badly need critical studies of specific denominations in the Pacific Northwest in order to begin to understand how these facts became characteristics of the region and how they have influenced the corporate practice of religion, molded the religious sensibilities of individuals, and obstructed and supported the establishment and survival of Christian denominations in the Pacific Northwest.(3)

This paper grows out of a critical study of one denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, in its first fifty years in the region. The study involves translating and critically editing the letter press books of Augustin Magliore Alexander Blanchet, first Catholic bishop of Walla Walla and Nesqually.(4) The paper argues that in order to write the Pacific Northwest more fully into Canadian and U.S. Catholic history, historians must take cognizance of two factors that have contributed to the region's omission from dominant narratives of Catholic history and that help to explain the region's distinct religious character. These factors are geography and demographics.

Three themes characterize U.S. narratives of Roman Catholicism when approached from the perspective of Catholicism in the West, including the Pacific Northwest: 1) absence; 2) a relentless east to west trajectory that is coupled with an entrenched English/U.S. master story; and, 3) in those narratives that do address the Pacific Northwest, a single organizing metaphor -- the battle to establish and maintain ecclesiastical presence.(5)

Total absence or cursory mention characterize treatments of the Roman Catholic Church in the Far West and especially the Pacific Northwest in secular histories of the United States. This absence has persisted in what is referred to as the "new Western History" represented in the works of scholars such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, and Clyde A. Milner.(6) D. Michael Quinn's "Religion in the American West" stands out for addressing religion as a topic in its own right and not as an intrusive addition to ethnic or community studies. What Quinn's essay does not do, (and the task still may be impossible at this point), is offer causal explanations or interpretations of western religiousness.(7)

Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest is absent in religious histories of the United States as well. The single reference to the early history of Catholicism in the Oregon Country that I could locate in any general history of U.S. religion was in Sydney Ahlstrom's thousand-plus-page A Religious History of the American People. Ahlstrom notes: "In 1846, at a time when the Oregon question was still unsettled, a new stage in American hierarchical history was reached. A second metropolitan see was erected with the French-Canadian Francis N. Blanchet as archbishop, his brother as suffragan in Walla Walla, and another French-Canadian as bishop of Vancouver. In both fact and theory this province was at first an extension of the Canadian Church."(8)

Save for Ahlstrom's brief mention, why the absence? The answer falls into two parts, both implicit in Ahlstrom. …

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