On December 12, 1838, Father Blanchet took Augustine Rochon, the only personal servant that had been allowed him, and set out in a canoe with four Indian paddlers. They floated down the river to the mouth of the swift Cowlitz River, and then went up this stream until they reached Cowlitz Prairie. Here were located the Hudson Bay Company’s extensive farms managed by Simon Plamondon, assisted by five farmers.
The first Indian tribe in Western Washington that Father Blanchet worked with was the Cowlitz; therefore, the first Catholic Church in Western Washington was built near Cowlitz Landing. The Abbe officiated his first mass in the home of Simon Plamondon, on the morning of their arrival, December 16, 1838 at 10 a.m.
Here was a suitable location for mission that was convenient to Fort Vancouver, flat land with timber on its borders, fertile soil and a river for a roadway. There was lush grass, green even in December. There was fish for food and game not too far distant. What better place could one ask for? The scenery, too, was pleasing to the eye. Mt. St. Helens loomed in the distance; and nearby, rose the majestic Mt. Rainier.
Father Blanchet left Augustine Rochon at Cowlitz Landing with instructions to build the church. Rochon was one of the French voyageurs who remained to work with the Abbe. Rochon chose a site of 640 acres and built a log chapel. It was a strange looking building, and was said to look like a wolf’s head; therefore, it became known as Wolf’s Head Chapel. The mission land extended two miles up from the river and was one-half mile wide. It should be noted that the Donation Land Claim Act did not take place until 1855-56; consequently, this land was a gift from the Cowlitz Indians.
Unfortunately, the mission was plagued over the years with numerous fires. The log chapel burnt tom the ground and a new church was built in 1879, which was totally destroyed by fire in 1901. All the old and valuable records from the beginning of the mission were lost in the fire. A new church was constructed in 1902. In 1908, Franciscan Friars, who are still in charge, took over the mission and area in the name of the Bishop. They constructed a residence for the Franciscan Missionaries in 1910. Another disastrous fire in 1916 destroyed both the mission and the priest’s residence. A new church and residence was constructed in 1917, but another costly fire in 1932, on the first day of lent, destroyed the church. The church you see today, the sixth one built, was erected at the end of 1932. The old residence was remodeled and formally dedicated in March 1973.
Soon after Rochon built that first log chapel, religious services were held regularly for the Cowlitz Indians and the company men. One day in the spring there arrived a delegation of Indians led by their Chief, Tslalakun. These Samish Indians came from Whidbey Island and were hungry and tired. Having heard that a “Black-Robe” was living here, they had come to verify the report. Now that they had found him they could do little but stare in wonder. They listened to the teachings of the priest, and needed to have a way to carry the Abbe’s stories back to their people. Father Blanchet knew of the Northwest Indian custom of carving their stories on totem poles; consequently, the Abbe took a stick and carved notches for the number of centuries before Jesus, and then made a distinguishing mark to represent Jesus’s birth. This was then followed by a number of small dots and then a cross, after that a number of more marks, representing the number of centuries that had passed since the crucifixion. This became known as the “Jesus Stick.” They carried this stick back with them. This stick became the forerunner of a chart known as the “Catholic Ladder” which the Abbe created four years later in 1842.
The Abbe took a strong piece of yellow wrapping paper about eighteen inches wide and six feet long and glued it to a piece of white cloth. He then used black India ink to make the illustrations on it. The notches and Dots on the “Jesus Stick” became horizontal lines and dots up the center of the new chart. This left him room for illustrative symbols on both the right and left hand sides of the chart. Father Blanchet made first use of this chart at the Cowlitz Mission in July 1842. Numerous copies of it were made of it afterward and used among the tribes throughout the Puget Sound area. His new chart became known as “The Catholic Ladder.”
Chinook Jargon phrase for the week: “Chako weght tomolla,” meaning, “Come again tomorrow.”