Idaho, the Jesuits and Father DeSmet

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In 1762, Coeur d'Alene tribal Chief Circling Raven had a vision of a man wearing black robes and carrying crossed sticks bringing them a new spiritual power.

In a valley deep in the wilderness of the northern Rocky Mountains more than 80 years later, a young priest wearing a black robe and strange hat found a priceless nugget as big as his fist. He could have become a very rich man, having stumbled onto one of the richest gold deposits in the world, but instead he chose to be a Jesuit, with a life of service, suffering, hardship and danger.

His name was Pierre-Jean DeSmet, who as a boy was so strong his playmates called him Samson - just the right description for the man needed for the Herculean task of bringing spiritual salvation to the pagan Indians of America.

Father DeSmet kept his incredible gold find to himself because he knew the power of white man greed and feared its effect on the Indians he so loved.

Writing to his family, he said, "Imagine thousands of adventurers from every country, deserters, thieves, murderers, the scum of the states ... living together, free of all law and restraint." When gold was discovered elsewhere in the West, it all came true.

DeSmet was born in the town of Dendermonde, Belgium, in 1801. He was 20 when he arrived in America with 11 other novitiates to study for the priesthood. His first sustained contact with Native Americans was with the Potawatomi in Iowa at St. Joseph's Mission in today's Council Bluffs.

He was appalled to see unscrupulous traders dealing alcohol to the Indians, bringing conflict between the tribes, causing violence and death. Trading whisky was illegal and the U.S. Army tried its best to maintain order, but alcohol continued to be sold to the Indians.

"These poor souls were cheated in every way possible," one report said, "and they retaliated in drunken rage by bloody frenzies of revenge. Inevitably the horrible condition led to a state of war."

DeSmet's ministry in Iowa yielded few results, either in protecting the Indians or in making Christian converts - but better days were ahead.

The Flathead Indians in the Idaho-Montana area heard about the Christian message and wanted to know more. They sent a delegation 3,000 miles to St. Louis to request that a Black Robe be sent to them to provide spiritual comfort to the sick and dying and to the children.

Three earlier Flathead expeditions failed due to disease and massacre while passing through hostile Sioux territory. In 1839, the fourth mission, that included some Iroquois who dwelt among the Flathead and Nez Perce was successful.

"With tears in their eyes, they begged me to return with them," DeSmet wrote, "I would willingly give my life to help these Indians." Receiving permission from his superiors, the Belgian priest headed for the wilderness to begin a 40-year mission among the Indians of the Northwest.

Chief Big Face greeted him with: "Father, speak, and we will comply with all you tell us. Show us the road we have to follow in order to come to the place where the Great Spirit resides. Black Robe, we will follow the words of your mouth."

A church report said, "The good Father put that grace to his own advantage frequently, for he was set upon many times by bands of unfamiliar tribes. He could almost always disarm even the most fearsome of them, first by arousing their curiosity over his strange-looking black habit, and then by using his gentle manner, simple candor, and sincere love to explain his peaceful mission."

Communicating was always a difficult task in dealing with the Indians. To teach the Gospel, the Jesuits had to learn unfamiliar languages that readily spoke of material matters, but not abstract concepts of thought.

"There were some Indians ... who respected only one virtue: courage. And (DeSmet's) was tested to the limit on several occasions by ferocious warriors, brandishing tomahawks and knives, who ambushed the unarmed priest, if not to kill him then at least to terrorize him."

The courageous priest traveled throughout the Rockies, frequently returning to mission headquarters in St. Louis, and 19 times made trips back to Europe seeking financial support for his ministry.

Accompanied by Fr. Nicholas Point and Br. Charles Duet, DeSmet established a mission in Idaho along the St. Joe River near St. Maries, but due to flooding it was moved to its present location in the Silver Valley in 1846. It was called the Mission of the Sacred Heart, or Cataldo Mission, after a Sicilian priest who spent most of his life there.

When Fr. Antonio Ravalli - an Italian priest born in Ferrara - took over the church and redesigned it, he enlisted the help of local Coeur d'Alene Indians so that they would feel part of the church. They used the ancient "wattle and daub" methods of construction (woven lattice walls covered with clay, mud, etc.). Not a single nail was used, and the Mission still stands today as the oldest building in Idaho.

DeSmet built missions all over the Northwest and was called The Apostle of the Rockies. The Indians called him "The white man whose tongue does not lie," because of his remarkable gift of diplomacy and aura of trustworthiness.

Several times the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army called upon him to negotiate peace with the Indians.

The first was while at St. Joseph's in Iowa. He was sent to talk with the warlike Sioux, seeking peace between them and the Potawatomies. It was a success.

He succeeded again in 1868, when Sitting Bull and the Sioux resigned themselves to the reality that they could not win against the white man and called on their old friend Father DeSmet - the Great Black Robe - who was then 68, to help negotiate a peace treaty with the federal government. When the aged priest arrived alone among the Sioux, some 500 warriors cried out in joy as they rushed to greet him.

"Black Robe," the Chief intoned, beginning the conference, "I hardly sustain myself beneath the weight of White Man's blood that I have shed.

"The Whites provoked the war - their injustices; their indignities to our families; the cruel, unheard - of and totally unprovoked massacre at Fort Lyon of six or seven hundred women, children and old men, shook all the veins which bind and support me.

"I rose, tomahawk in hand, and I have done all the hurt to the Whites I could. Today you are among us, and in your presence my hands fall to the ground as if dead. I will listen to your good words, and as bad as I have been to the Whites, just so good am I ready to become toward them."

A peace accord - The Treaty of Fort Laramie - was signed on July 2 by all the chiefs, and considered by many as the most remarkable event in the history of the Indian Wars.

In 1873, Pierre-Jean DeSmet, S.J. died of nephritis at age 72 in St. Louis, where he is buried. His missionary and other great work from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean is an important chapter in the history of America. He foresaw what would happen to the Indians and wanted to protect them - and devoted his life to that cause.

There's a quiet and gentle spirit about DeSmet's Cataldo Mission just east of Coeur d'Alene that touches the heart. It's humble simplicity is a universe away from the grandeur and towering majesty of the great Cathedrals elsewhere - monuments to an omniscient and eternal God, but also symbols of wealth and power in a temporal world.

Cataldo's knife-hewn beams and planks lovingly stained purple with huckleberries; the newspaper and fabric-covered walls and hand-cut tin accoutrements are far removed from the flowing arches, gilded domes, painted masterpieces, and iconic carvings and sculptures elsewhere in Christendom.

The little mission church standing on the slope of a hill in an Idaho valley will always reflect the devotion and pious spirit of a Belgian priest in a strange black robe and funny little hat who sought to make a difference more than a century and a half ago.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at

Tribute to a giant in Idaho history

"Almost childlike in the cheerful buoyancy of his disposition, he preserved this characteristic to the end ... and (was) made Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by the King of the Belgians ... He was not wanting in personal courage ... Though he had frequent narrow escapes from death in his perilous travels and often took his life in his hands when penetrating among hostile tribes, he never faltered."

Fr. DeSmet praised the Idaho Indians

Writing of the Flatheads, Kalispel, Coeur d'Alene, Kootenai and other tribes in Idaho and surrounding areas: "Their conduct toward me was one continued act of kindness and of attention ... exceeding my expectations ... quarrels were of the rarest occurrence, and no stranger could come amongst them without meeting with a kind reception and finding hospitality ... (and strict honesty) toward one another and likewise toward strangers."

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