St. Louis parishioner Susan Belleque pauses as she describes how quilts were raffled off at parish dinners — dinners where, for a time, each household brought their own roasted turkey, and the fundraising dinner’s cost was 35 cents. The older quilts were handmade on a frame that kept the material taut, rolling it up as each section was finished. (Kristen Hannum/ Catholic Sentinel)
St. Louis parishioner Susan Belleque pauses as she describes how quilts were raffled off at parish dinners — dinners where, for a time, each household brought their own roasted turkey, and the fundraising dinner’s cost was 35 cents. The older quilts were handmade on a frame that kept the material taut, rolling it up as each section was finished. (Kristen Hannum/ Catholic Sentinel)
GERVAIS — Not all the scores of families who attended the 175th anniversary celebration of St. Louis Church in Gervais still live locally.

But they were here Sunday, Aug. 21, for the anniversary Mass, aware of their central place in Oregon’s Catholic history.

It was their ancestors who were here first, making their homes and building the first Catholic churches on French Prairie.

Those early settlers begged for priests to be sent to them.

Now their descendants are part of history’s continuation, in ways both spiritual and every day.

“You never really leave St. Louis,” said Susan Belleque, laughing over her family’s return to French Prairie. “I learned that during 10 years living in Salem.”

She still got regular communication from the parish during that time, including finding herself on volunteering schedules.

The community is so close-knit that Belleque grew up calling her husband-to-be’s grandmother “Gramma Grassman.” “Then Kent and I got married and she really was my Gramma Grassman,” she said.

Susan and Kent Belleque’s four sons were all at the anniversary celebration, as were her grandchildren.

Jack Belleque, brother to Kent, said he loves returning to St. Louis, remembering his days as an altar boy. “Who built all this?” he asked, gesturing around him.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of our grandparents and their grandparents’ grandparents.”

Irene Duda had been vacationing with her brother’s family in central Washington. She was up before dawn in order to make the drive back. “I wasn’t going to miss this,” she said. “How often does a parish celebrate its 175th anniversary?”

The rural community came together with an outdoor Mass beside the small church, which couldn’t have accommodated the crowd.

The anniversary committee cleaned, repaired and refurbished the church in preparation for the anniversary. They addressed water damage, repainted, caulked and restored artwork and hangings.

“There was a tapestry we all thought was brown and it came back ivory,” said Janet Steinkamp, who lives catty-corner across from the church and was a member of the committee, which also produced an anniversary booklet filled with photos, artwork, history and memories.

One of the earliest anecdotes dates from 1853, when a baby, Felicito Viesman, was born during Christmas Mass in the sacristy.

The anniversary committee also gathered quilts, including older, hand-quilted quilts, which have been traditionally raffled off at parish dinners. They were displayed on pews in the church along with newer quilts.

Kent Belleque, chairman of the anniversary committee, said he remembered the 150th anniversary celebration 25 years ago. “I think the kids will remember this,” he said. “It’s a good tradition to carry on.”

St. Louis, now part of Sacred Heart-St. Louis Parish, was established in 1847. It’s the third oldest parish in western Oregon, only predated by St. John the Apostle in Oregon City (1842) and St. Paul in St. Paul (1839). The first St. Louis Church, built in 1845, began as a mission of St. Paul.

St. Louis’ current church, a classic built in 1880, is the oldest wooden church in the archdiocese.

The lay leadership of early St. Louis made history. Catholic French-Canadian trappers and their families from Fort Vancouver settled here on the wide fertile plain that became known as French Prairie.

In 1890, the Catholic Sentinel ran an article on those early settlers: “OREGON’S FOUNDERS: They Were French Canadians [and] Zealous Catholics.”

The article noted that Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor of Fort Vancouver, induced several of the trappers “to settle down on the lovely valley of the Wallamette (sic), where in the midst of forests the hand of nature seemed to have cleared a rich and fertile prairie for human settlement. … Among these settlers the names of Joseph Gervais, Stephen Lucier, and Peter [Pierre] Beleque appear prominent.”

Jack and Kent Belleque are sixth generation descendants of Pierre.

In “The Centenary, 100 Years of the Catholic Church in the Oregon Country,” a supplement to the Catholic Sentinel in 1939, the beginning pages note that the archdiocese had its beginnings when Father Francis Blanchet and his assistant, Father Modeste Demers, arrived after the French Canadians begged the Catholic establishment in eastern Canada for priests who could perform the sacraments.

The priests finally arrived in 1838 in Fort Vancouver, where they celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the Pacific Northwest. An 1878 article in the Catholic Sentinel notes that “the Catholics of the Wallamette valley” (as it was spelled then) were anxious to see the priests, and that “two of the most respected citizens of the colony, Mr. Etienne Lucier and Mr. Pierre Beleque” were ready with canoes at Fort Vancouver to bring Father Blanchet to French Prairie, where St. Paul Church had already been built.

They portaged a quarter mile past “the Wallamette (sic) Fall,” took to the water again and made the last four miles by horseback.

More than 40 pastors are listed in the 175th anniversary book. For current pastor Father James Herrera, who grew up in Stayton, Gervais feels as comfortable as home, with an added infusion of history.

For the past two years he’s celebrated Masses only at Sacred Heart, three miles west. COVID-19 put a temporary end to Masses at St. Louis but Father Herrera expects to resume them by October.

That made this anniversary Mass, at St. Louis Church if not in it, even more special — as did Archbishop Alexander Sample’s presence.

The archbishop offered a congratulatory homily that also at times was fiery.

“This is a historic church that may be small in number but it is large in history and influence,” he said.

Archbishop Sample noted that Catholics have not always been well treated in Oregon. “There was great persecution and great bias,” he said. “Your ancestors lived through that, witnessed to Christ through that and they remained faithful. The land is blessed and we stand on that land.”

Looking to the future, Archbishop Sample said it was a joy to see the younger families with children. “You are the ones that Jesus is counting on now to continue to witness,” he said.

He noted that everyone present is a descendant of immigrants, and that immigrants continue to arrive, “to make a living for themselves and their families, to grow in love for one another and for God.”

Archbishop Sample referenced the second reading (Heb. 12:5-7, 11-13) and reminded the crowd that God disciplines his beloved children. “Through those trials, the author says, we reap great fruits, the fruits of righteousness,” said the archbishop, enjoining listeners to “stand up straight and strong in Christ.”

“Because I think tough times are coming, folks,” he said. “They’re already here. And they’re going to get harder. Praise God that you live in this community where faith and family and values are still strong.”

Archbishop Sample finished his homily by again congratulating the steadfast families. “This church stands in this prairie as a beacon of hope and light to the surrounding community,” he said, concluding that “there’s nowhere on the planet I’d rather be today that here with you.”