Paul Deming, historian at St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver, Washington, says one theory is that the baptismal font at his parish is the twin of the one at St. Paul Church in St. Paul, and that Archbishop Francois Blanchet brought both to Oregon from Belgium in 1844. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Paul Deming, historian at St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver, Washington, says one theory is that the baptismal font at his parish is the twin of the one at St. Paul Church in St. Paul, and that Archbishop Francois Blanchet brought both to Oregon from Belgium in 1844. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
VANCOUVER, Wash. — A baptismal font likely used by Oregon’s first archbishop in the mid-19th century has long had a happy home across the Columbia River at St. James Proto-Cathedral here.

The oak font stands 4 feet tall and has a nifty pivot that allows the lid to swing open gracefully, revealing the life-giving waters.

Records are lost, but many clues indicate that the sacred font was in use at the old St. John the Apostle Church in Oregon City, where Archbishop Francis Blanchet was in charge starting in 1846. Even after moving to Portland in 1862, the archbishop returned to Oregon City for a decade to help with sacraments, including many baptisms.

The founding shepherd of the local church poured holy water over the heads of hundreds of babies and converts, marking their souls and bringing them to Christ and the Catholic community. One record book shows that he baptized six children from the Spokane tribe at the font on Dec. 30, 1849. In 1860 alone, he baptized 165 people in the Oregon City church.

The Vancouver font may be a 176-year-old relic of the birth and growth of the Catholic Church in western Oregon.

One of the people Archbishop Blanchet baptized was still alive in 1957, when the St. John the Apostle Parish staff interviewed her. Agnes Milln, born Agnes McDonald, was baptized at the font on April 29, 1866. She recalled the archbishop, who was a frequent guest at her father’s Oregon City home.

As Oregon City Catholics expanded their downtown church in 1902 and again in 1918 and in 1947 moved to a temporary church on the hilltop, the venerable font came along. But when the current marble church was completed in 1957, the wooden relic eventually was removed and somehow made its way to an antique dealer.

In 1960, Dr. Thomas Donovan of St. James in Vancouver received notice from a local antique shop. An old baptismal font from Oregon City had come into the store’s possession. The good doctor, a fan of history, acquired it for his church, where it has been ever since. In 2001, the font came out of the St. James sacristy and into the church.

It was at Fort Vancouver, after all, that then-Father Blanchet first alighted when he arrived in the Northwest in 1838 from French Canada.

Some Catholics from Oregon City seem to recognize their old font upon visiting St. James, a large brick church in downtown Vancouver.

One is Redemptorist Father William Cleary, born in Oregon City and later a pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland and a missionary to Nigeria. He would come to assist at St. James and tell people he was baptized in the oaken font in the 1930s.

Lorraine Ekerson and Pat Vedder of St. John the Apostle took a good look at a photo of the font. They can’t be sure, but they say it looks like the one they remember.

Vedder was baptized in Oregon City in 1932. She recalls that the font stood in the back of the old church. After 1947, Vedder said, the font was kept under the stairs in the school from where it was brought out for baptisms, since the school was used as a church for a decade until the current church was built.

Ekerson had her three oldest children baptized in the font in the mid-1950s.

Paul Deming, historian at St. James, notes that St. Paul Church in St. Paul has a similar font. St. Paul, where the church was built in 1846, was Father Blanchet’s home before he was named an archbishop and moved to Oregon City. Deming speculates that the archbishop may have purchased both fonts, perhaps even at the same time.

Deming’s study of the font indicates it may have been made in Germany or Belgium. He notes that Father Blanchet was in Belgium in the early 1840s, meeting with religious communities and seeking aid for his fledgling church of Oregon.

It’s possible that the fonts came to Oregon in 1844 on a ship with six Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Deming’s own children have been baptized at the font. He says that makes him feel they have a sacramental link to local Catholic history.



If anyone has photographs of baptisms at St. John the Apostle Parish in Oregon City before 1957, the Sentinel would like to see them to verify the identity of the font in Vancouver. Email edl@catholicsentinel.org or call 503-460-5353.