Around 1829, discharged servants of the Hudson's Bay Company settled on the Cowlitz Prairie and in the Willamette Valley. The majority of them were French Canadian Catholics. The people began writing petitions to Canada in 1834 asking for priests. They wrote again in 1835 and in the spring of 1838.
In November 1838, two priests arrived from Canada and Mass was celebrated for the first time in the region then known as “lower Oregon”. This began the Quebec Mission to Oregon country. On November 25th they celebrated Mass in the Fort Vancouver school house. Fathers Blanchet and Demers made the fort their home base and eventually set up a chapel in an old store.
Standing: Rev. F.X. Leclerc, Rev. Van Holdenberker, Very Rev. Louis Shram V.G. Seated: Bishop Junger
On May 31, 1846, the first church outside the fort was dedicated. The first St. James measured 83 feet long by 36 feet wide and 20 feet high. The brick, stone, and mortar church could accommodate about 500 people.
St. James Church became a cathedral, in 1850 when the diocese of Nesqually was formed. Most Rev. Augustine Blanchet was named Bishop of Nesqually with residence in Vancouver, Washington Territory.
1st St. James Cathedral
In 1856 Mother Joseph and the Providence Sisters from Montreal arrived in Vancouver.
In 1884 the cornerstone was laid for the new cathedral. Mother Joseph was heavily involved in the building of the cathedral. The brick was made in Vancouver by the Hidden Brick Company. The cut stone came from Camas and the stained glass windows were designed and made in San Francisco. The columns are Philippine cedar and the interior is plaster with fir wainscoting.
Mother Joseph, born Esther Pariseau, was one of the founders of the Sisters of Providence in the Pacific Northwest.
Taken about 1890, this photo shows St. James (in the background) and the surrounding area.
Completed in 1885 under the direction of Bishop Junger, the second bishop of Nesqually, St. James was the centerpiece of the Diocese of Nesqually. Measuring 145 feet long and 60 feet wide, St. James can accommodate approximately 800 people.
In September 1907, the the territorial See was officially transferred to Seattle. The title of St. James Cathedral was transferred to Seattle with the bishop, and our St. James became a parish church.
Missions attached to St. James were St. Mary, Pioneer (Ridgefield), 1867; St. John, Glenwood (Orchards), 1868; Sacred Heart, Battle Ground, 1877; St. Thomas, Camas, 1881 & Washougal, 1901; St. Joseph, Vancouver, 1952; Our Lady of Lourdes, Vancouver, 1955.
The History of St. James Catholic Church
1907 - 1999
Taken more than 100 years ago, this photo shows the pulpit on the right, outside of the communion rail and the Bishop's chair on the left of the altar. The sanctuary lamp is in the middle of the altar.
The photo above shows the sanctuary about 100 years later. Notice that a front altar has been added. The pulpit has been moved to the inside of the communion rail and to the left side . Windows were added above the doors to the sacristy to allow more light into the area.
In the 100 years that have passed since St. James reverted back to a parish, many changes have taken place. Some have greatly improved the property, some were later seen to be mistakes. The oak altars were painted white at one time! (see photo at right)
In 1926 the present rectory was built providing housing for the priests serving the parish. In 1951 the parish hall/gymnasium was added to the property.
In the late 1990's a determined effort began to improve, restore and update St. James.
The History of St. James Catholic Church
2000 - Present
More than 100 years of service to the Vancouver community, combined with declining membership, poor update choices and neglect had left the property and buildings of St. James in very poor condition. Once the centerpiece of the Catholic community, the parish was in danger of closure.
In the late 1990's a determined effort to bring the parish back to a thriving community began.
All three buildings were in need of repair to the brick-work, roofs and heating systems. The glorious stained glass windows needed cleaning, broken panes replaced and storm windows installed. The grounds needed a fresh appearance.
With the generous support of the St. James community and determined hard work, we have accomplished much in the last eight years.
Each building has received the needed roof and brick repair. The Church and rectory have had new heating and cooling systems installed.
A plaza, complete with fountain and statue of Our Lady of Vancouver, was created to provide beauty and a place for quiet contemplation in the center of the grounds. Fencing was put up to provide security to the grounds while other improvements were implemented.
The rectory and parish hall have been repainted and updated to provide a decent living space for our pastor, office space for our staff and areas for religious education classes and social activities.
Our Lady of Vancouver
Fourteen of the stained glass windows have been removed, repaired and returned with storm windows over them. They will provide light and beauty to our liturgies for the next 100 years and beyond!
Our beautiful Stations of the Cross have been similarly refurbished.
The statues in the Church - all original - have been cleaned and repaired.
All with an eye for the original detail.
We have repaired and restored, not updated.
The interior of the church, while beautiful, was in desperate need as well.
The lathe and plaster walls were pealing away. Worn carpet of red and green created an unsightly area for worship. The tile on the floor was backed with asbestos and needed removal.
While our previous improvements could be accomplished a little at a time and as finances allowed, we would not be so lucky with the interior of the church.
In the fall of 2007 we began a capital campaign to raise the funds to achieve our goal. As always, the generous response of our parishioners was quick.
In March of 2008 we moved Mass to our parish hall and began the immense task of restoration. All moveable objects were taken from the church. Pews were taken away and restored. An asbestos abatement team removed the dangerous tile and the walls were treated with fiberglass.
Next, a team of artists came in and painted the walls and ceiling. Gone was the ugly, drab green. St. James became a vision of ivory, blue and gold. Natural stone was laid in the floor. The restored pews were returned and by mid-September we had returned to our Church.
Today, St. James is a growing community. Our parishioners are from all over the Portland-Vancouver area. Visitors seek our traditional setting and historic significance; they stay because they love us!
We enjoy the history we share with the city of Vancouver, Clark County and - not least - the Catholic Church. We are listed on the National Historic Registry.
A Message from the Archbishop
Our future plans include a new heating/cooling system and a lift for the parish hall. We would like to make our restrooms accessible to all our parishioners - including those that find our many stairs difficult. There are still twenty windows to be cleaned and repaired.
We thank God for the opportunity to praise Him with our work and sacrifices as we restored St. James for His Glory.