Skip to main content

The Old Mission at Coeur d’Alene: Historic Multicultural Meeting Place

Bradley Robbins is a tech, trade, and travel writer with a lifetime of experience with North America, Europe, and Japan.

Many of the great historical sites of our nation’s history are best known for the conflicts and disagreements that happened there. The Old Mission at Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho has a much different past. This building, the oldest in the state, has been a gathering place for people and ideas for over a century.

The First Mission Building

Jesuits, primarily of Basque origin, created the first mission building on the banks of the St. Joe River some 35 miles south of the current site. The first building was a gathering place for the missionaries and natives of the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Palus tribes. Native tribes sent medicine men to the location to learn from the Jesuits. Floods regularly swept through the area and left the initial construction inhospitable in 1846, causing many smaller camps to spring up nearby.

The Sacred Heart Mission

The Jesuit mission eventually set up in what would become the state park in Coeur d’Alene near the city of Cataldo, Idaho. It’s locally known as the Cataldo Mission, though its true name is the Sacred Heart Mission. Inspired by his Italian homeland, Jesuit missionary Antonio Ravalli designed the church in the style of Italian cathedrals. The new construction began in 1848 and was completed nearly eight years later, and the building itself was constructed without a single nail.

Ravalli had two main goals during the mission building’s construction. The first was that the local natives should be heavily involved, and the second mandated using a waddle and daub technique to make the most of nearby resources. Construction brought the community together, and the mission was welcome to remain in place on nominally native lands after a series of treaties gave the Coeur d’Alene native peoples control of the region.

The Steptoe Conflict

The following years were a dark period in Native American history, when the Yakima War was fought over the territory. The conflict came to a head when United States Army soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Edward Jenner Steptoe approached natives to capture the alleged killer of a white miner in 1858. While history does not record who shot first, the first casualty was on the native side. Steptoe’s army of 164 men was forced back to Pine Creek and surrounded by a force of 1,000 native warriors as night fell.

Historical accounts from the Coeur d’Alene tribe claim the tribe let the men leave peacefully, requiring them to bury their dead and their two cannons. The United States Army official reports claim the men outsmarted their opponents and escaped. The native tribes held council at the Old Mission and conferred with the Jesuits for advice on how to proceed.

Scroll to Continue

The Army’s retribution was swift, however, and following the Spokane–Coeur d'Alene–Paloos War, the tribes surrendered and negotiated a peace treaty. With their horses lost in the battle and their numbers dwindling, the Coeur d’Alene tribe accepted terms that included allowing settlers free passage and handing over those responsible for the conflict at Pine Creek.

Headquarters for the Mullan Road

Following the Yakima War, the focus on finding a northwest passage through the area to the Pacific Ocean continued. A young army Lieutenant named John Mullan was charged with preparing a wagon trail, first surveyed in 1854, that stretched from Fort Benton in Montana through the region to Fort Walla Walla. Construction took one year and began with official groundbreaking in 1859 at Fort Walla Walla. The Old Mission served as a midpoint headquarters for the Mullan Road’s construction and operation.

The Mullan Road became a major conduit for trade and travel through the region. In the following decades, towns and cities popped up along its route. It’s now a prominent lead for students learning about history through relic-hunting in the Cataldo, Idaho, area as well as those looking into the histories of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Sacred Encounters and Modern Amenities

Today’s Old Mission State Park remains a gathering place for many. Visitors come to see the oldest building in Idaho and stay for the Sacred Encounters exhibit at the visitor’s center, which explores much of the history and faith of the region. The museum and gift shop offer a selection of artifacts and insights for visitors of all ages.

Much of the original church construction still remains, including statues hand-carved by Father Ravalli to look like marble and tin chandeliers created from local materials. The painstaking care taken to document the many important gatherings at the Old Mission and the conversion and preservation of local records ensures that the history is as alive and vibrant today as it ever was.


Bradley Robbins (author) from Sun Valley on March 23, 2018:

Made a new trip out that way recently. Every bit as stunning in the winter as the fall. The new exhibits are not to be missed.

Related Articles