Fr. Francis Blanchet trekked to Oregon in 1838 and became the region's first archbishop.
Fr. Francis Blanchet trekked to Oregon in 1838 and became the region's first archbishop.

Archbishop Francois Norbert Blanchet, who came to Oregon as a middle-aged French Canadian missionary to establish Catholicism, arrived 182 years ago after an arduous trip.

Today, pilgrims can follow his intriguing journey more easily. Father Blanchet and his colleague Father Modeste Demers departed in canoes with a band of voyageurs from Lachine, Quebec, on May 3, 1838, and arrived at Fort Vancouver 4,500 miles later on Nov. 24 of the same year. In a way not dreamed of by the two 19th-century missionaries, modern motorists can make the journey with about 44 hours of driving. Or a pilgrim could take several weeks, including meaningful stops for prayer and reflection — and perhaps an occasional paddle in Canadian waters.

Here are sites important in the life of Oregon’s Catholic apostle, including several places he inhabited before making the great trip westward.


Francois Norbert Blanchet was born Sept. 3, 1795, near the village of Saint-Pierre, Riviere du Sud, Quebec (above). An hour northeast of Quebec City, the town rests in the flats just south of the St. Lawrence River. Still rural, it includes a quaint white church completed in 1785. Young Francois came from a prominent family. A relative had helped found the first French Canadian newspaper to safeguard civil and religious liberties. Francois and his younger brother Augustin-Magloire, later bishop of Walla Walla, attended the parish school, 4 miles from the family farm. St. Peter Church is still the most prominent site in town. 650 Avenue 1, Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, QC G0R 4B0, Canada.


In 1810, the Blanchet brothers were sent to the minor seminary in Quebec. Francois won distinction, taking first prize in Latin composition and earning the grandiose title of Imperator, or first honor, in Latin translation. In 1816 he entered the Superior Seminary of Quebec and after lauded theological work was ordained July 19, 1819.

An 1886 painting by Henry Richard S. Bunnett (above) shows a part of the Séminaire de Québec. 1 Rue des Remparts, Québec, QC G1R 5L7, Canada



After serving for a year at Quebec’s historic cathedral  he received an assignment from his bishop to go east to the mission of St. Antoine of Richibucto in New Brunswick on the Northumberland Strait. Showing the energy he’d later bring to Oregon, he restored the village church, started catechism classes and founded choirs. He learned English to serve the many Irish migrants in the area and also tended to the Indigenous tribes and the Acadians. He traveled hundreds of miles by canoe to the various stations. In winter, he trekked by snowshoe. Years later, residents would talk of his heroism in storms. Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue Church in Richibucto Village (above) was moved away from the shore in 1877, but the sacristy contains the original framework of the 1798 chapel, which Father Blanchet restored in 1820. 3794 Road 505, Richibucto-Village NB E4W 1R2 (Courtesy Archdiocese of Moncton)


In 1827 the bishop summoned Father Blanchet, then 32, to serve at prominent St. Joseph de Soulanges Parish in the village of Les Cèdres southwest of Montreal. A rendezvous site for boats plying the St. Lawrence River, it put him in contact with the current of life moving westward. Cholera hit in 1832 and he ministered to the sick and dying with selfless diligence. Local Catholics gave him two silver chalices in thanks. The current church (above) was dedicated in 1881 on the site where Father Blanchet ministered for a decade. 1150 Chemin du Fleuve, Les Cèdres, QC J7T 1C1, Canada (Courtesy Archdiocese of Montreal)



Before leaving Montreal, the pilgrim will want to visit what is left of St. Jacques Cathedral (above) on the site where Father Blanchet returned from Oregon in 1845 to be consecrated a bishop. Dedicated in 1825, the church was destroyed by fire in 1852. Rebuilt and then damaged by flames several times, it was purchased by a university and razed in the 1970s except for the spire and transept. Corner of Saint-Denis and Sainte-Catherine Streets, Montreal (Courtesy Université de Québec)


In what is now a borough of Montreal, the Hudson’s Bay Company launched their canoe voyages west and welcomed back boats full of pelts. With the bishop having secured their passage with voyagers, Fathers Blanchet and Demers embarked on May 3, 1838, bound for Oregon Country. An 1803 fur warehouse the missionaries would have seen (above) remains at the historic site and includes displays. 1255 Saint-Joseph Blvd., Lachine Borough H8S 2M2, Canada (Courtesy Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site)


The trappers and their blackrobe passengers would have paddled on the Ottawa River toward Lake Huron. The weather in May would likely have been mild and the air fragrant. One of the best views of the river is from the Etienne-Brule to Champlain Lookout (above), a 3.1 mile lightly used trail near Chelsea, Quebec. Champlain Pkwy., Chelsea, Quebec J9B 1H9, Canada (Courtesy National Capital Commission)


A city on the link between Lakes Huron and Superior, Sault Ste. Marie is partly in Ontario, partly in Michigan. Red sandstone buildings line a fascinating canal that did not exist until 1895. The missionaries would have had to risk the treacherous rapids on the St. Mary’s River or portage (carry) their boats overland. The shipping locks (above) were not built until 1855. Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783

(Courtesy Northern Ontario Travel)


Fort William on Lake Superior had its origins with a French trading post in the 1680s. Fur trappers stopped off on their way west and then returned laden with furs bound for Montreal. By the time the Oregon missionaries passed through, the post was waning. A replica of the fort now is located in the modern city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It shows that the officers would have offered the priests simple rooms (above) to rest up for the continued journey. The site has guided tours and historical reenactments. 1350 King Rd., Thunder Bay, Ontario P7K 1L7, Canada (Courtesy Fort William Historical Park)


Perhaps the best place to see what the missionary journey looked and smelled like 182 years ago is to visit Voyageurs National Park, a preserved mosaic of land and water, featuring lodges and campsites (above), some of which are reachable only by boat. One can only imagine the mosquitoes in spring 1838. 360 Hwy. 11 East, International Falls, MN 56649 (Courtesy Voyageurs National Park)


In 1838, what is now Fort Frances (above) was a fur trading depot known as Fort Lac la Pluie. Established in the 1770s or 1780s, it was located on a high bank across from International Falls, Minnesota. Fort Frances, population 7,700, is a popular fishing destination and no doubt the missionaries nourished themselves gratefully on creatures from these waters. Today, the town tourist center has a full-size stuffed moose for photos. 320 Portage Ave., Fort Frances, Ontario P9A 3P9, Canada (Courtesy Fort Frances Tourist Information Centre)


In early June, 33 days after departing Lachine, the missionaries arrived at St. Boniface, where Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher lived. An auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Quebec, Provencher had charge of all western territories, including the Oregon Country. It was he who had heard from Oregon settlers begging for priests.

Modern visitors to the St. Boniface district of Winnipeg will find it retains the French culture of yesteryear with quaint cafes and live music. Shops near Provencher Boulevard sell artisan chocolates and French books. The area is home to Romanesque St. Boniface Cathedral (above). Originally built in 1832, it burned in 1860 and was replaced. As the population grew at the dawn of the 20th century, a newer cathedral went up on the site along the Red River, with its massive round porthole in the facade. Though the buildings have changed, it’s almost certain the Oregon missionaries prayed and said Mass on this site, asking God’s help for the mission ahead before paddling westward on the river. 180 Avenue de la Cathédrale, Winnipeg, Manitoba R2H 0H7 (Courtesy Archdiocese of St. Boniface)


Three months later and after almost 1,000 miles on Lake Winnipeg and the rivers of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the missionaries rested at a trading site on the north end of scenic Jasper Lake. They prepared to cross the Canadian Rockies. Switching from canoes to horses, they headed up the foothills and passes, having never seen such steep country. They celebrated Mass Oct. 10 at the top of scenic Athabasca Pass (above). This is where the usually prosaic Father Blanchet went poetic. He wrote in his historical sketches, published in the 1880s in the Catholic Sentinel: “The country abounding the Rocky Mountains appeared as a vast sea of numberless isolated high mountains, and abrupt peaks of all shapes, where the eye of the traveler fancies seeing here and there perfect towers, beautiful turrets, strong castles, walls and fortifications of all kinds as well as barren heights which form the base of higher hills and mountains raising majestically their lofty heads to heaven.” (Adobe Stock)


By Oct. 14, the party had descended quickly and had reached the upper reaches of the Columbia River. Where the river turns from a northwest course to the southwest, the area known as the Big Bend near present-day Kinbasket Lake in southeast British Columbia (above), they had Mass on the riverbank. It was their first liturgy in territory where they were to become shepherds. The lake, created in later years by the Mica Dam, is a popular fishing spot with many campgrounds. (Adobe Stock)


The party rode the current of the Columbia in light boats, stopping at Fort Okanagan on Nov. 13, where they baptized 14 tribe members. On Nov. 18, they reached Fort Nez Percés, which had been founded in 1818 near the present-day town of Wallula, Washington. It closed in the 1850s to be replaced by Fort Walla Walla, about 30 miles east. The city was an important eastern settlement in Oregon Country. It was even the seat of a diocese briefly. Now the Fort Walla Walla Museum (above) has 17 buildings that portray a pioneer settlement, plus gardens and exhibit halls. 755 NE Myra Rd., Walla Walla, WA 99362 (Courtesy Fort Walla Walla Museum)


After a week of slow descent of the Columbia, including a run on The Dalles rapids, the weary but joyous missionaries arrived at Fort Vancouver on Saturday, Nov. 24, 1838. A delegation of elated French-Canadians from the Willamette Valley, composed of Pierre Belleque, Joseph Gervais and Étienne Lucier, were present to greet them. At Mass the next day, the laymen wept because they had not had the Eucharist for 15 or 20 years. They introduced their native wives and children and joyfully watched as the blackrobes administered the sacraments to all. Father Blanchet was especially happy to teach Gregorian chant to his new pupils. The fort became an initial hub of missionary operation. Now, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (above) recreates the busy fort on large grounds. 1501 E Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver, WA 98661 (Courtesy National Park Service)


Before agreeing to transport the priests to Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company officials in London had made them promise they would establish their mission north of the Columbia on the Cowlitz River, not south in the Willamette Valley, which was an area the Americans were claiming with more zeal. Father Blanchet offered the first Mass at Cowlitz Dec. 16, 1838. Tribal members came from as far as Whidbey Island. St. Francis Xavier mission is located 3 miles north of present-day Toledo. It was here that Father Blanchet first used the Catholic ladder, a stick with markings that explained salvation history (above). The faithful built a log church in 1839 but it later burned; the present church at the site (above) was built in 1917. 139 Spencer Rd., Toledo, WA 98591 (Courtesy St. Francis Xavier Mission)


Beginning Jan. 3, 1839, the French Prairie settlers Pierre Belleque and Etien Lucier took Father Blanchet up the Willamette, likely spending their first night on the riverbanks in what is now Portland. They arrived in St. Paul (above) and the priest celebrated Mass in the 3-year-old log chapel there Jan. 6. Father Blanchet remained for five weeks. It is not clear whether the Hudson’s Bay Company officials knew. St. Paul eventually would become the home of Father Blanchet’s ministry as he taught French Canadians, people of the native tribes and anyone else settling the region. An envoy of the French government later visited St. Paul and wrote with admiring irony that “the archiepiscopal palace was worthy of John the Baptist.” The envoy marveled not only at Father Blanchet’s simple living but at his role in the community: “The priest is everything to the families on French Prairie — friend, confidant, law-giver, counselor, arbiter, judge.”

The current St. Paul Church completed in 1846 with bricks made on site and at the archbishop’s direction, became a frontier cathedral. The new archbishop started schools and recruited priests. 20217 Christie St. NE, St. Paul, OR 97137

St. Paul would be so close to his heart that he would be buried there when he died decades later. His grave is a popular pilgrimage site. 4419 Church Ave. NE, St. Paul, OR, 97137 (Sentinel archives)


In 1851, the Irish immigrants and other Catholics in the stumpy frontier town of Portland built their first Catholic church at what is now Northwest Fifth and Couch. Archbishop Blanchet, whose headquarters would remain in St. Paul and Oregon City for a decade yet, dedicated the little building the next year to Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception. 


In 1854, the same year Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Portland Catholic men rolled the church on logs down the wooded roadways closer to the center of town at Southwest Third and Stark (above, in 1866). In 1862, Archbishop Blanchet moved to Portland, which had grown. The wooden church became his cathedral. He would minister from there for decades, also traveling worldwide to raise funds. In 1881, after he retired at age 85, he gave a farewell address in the cathedral.

“We part now but we have the firm hope of seeing you forever in heaven,” he said. “Forget not your old and loving spiritual father; forgive him his mistakes and shortcomings; pray for him that his sins may be forgiven and forgotten when he will be called on to give an account of his stewardship.” (Courtesy Oregon Historical Society #38207)


Archbishop Blanchet died June 18, 1883, at age 87. The Sisters of Providence at St. Vincent Hospital (above) had cared for him tenderly. Across town, the cathedral bells tolled. At the funeral, the new archbishop, Charles Seghers, told mourners his predecessor was to Oregon what St. Patrick was to Ireland.

“Do you realize it, beloved brethren?” Archbishop Seghers said. “He is the apostle of this coast, the foundation of this mission, the cornerstone of this church. The seed that was sown here and grew into a large, lofty tree was sown by his hand. To him under God we owe the flourishing condition of Christianity in this country.” (Sentinel archives)