As archivist for the Archdiocese of Portland, I recently encountered a collection of letters written by our first archbishop, Francis Norbert Blanchet. The missives covered his career from 1821 to 1883.

The letters, mostly written in French, include correspondence with Father Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

In 1846, Archbishop Blanchet was in Europe looking for money and missionaries for his newly-established Archdiocese of Oregon City. Holy Cross Father Joseph Kehoe wrote in his history “Holy Cross in Oregon, 1902-1980” that the state of the congregation had grown so rapidly since its establishment in 1839 that French bishops were asking Father Moreau for assistance overseas. Father Moreau saw the Holy Cross mission as educating poor and underprivileged youth, in whatever part of the world. In November, 1846, Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal, Quebec, who was in France, received assurances from Father Moreau that one priest, eight brothers and four sisters would arrive in Canada in April, 1847.

Bishop Bourget informed Archbishop Blanchet, who was likewise looking for help. Archbishop Blanchet thereupon wrote to Father Moreau on Nov. 23, 1846, for similar aid, stating that while he would have religious sisters to teach girls, he had none for boys. In a pleading tone, the archbishop appealed to Father Moreau’s “zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls . ... Listen to the voice of the children of Oregon who are asking for brothers.”

Archbishop Blanchet sought a quick reply as his ship was scheduled to leave in the next month with 10 ecclesiastics, seven religious sisters and four others. According to Father Kehoe, Father Moreau replied favorably. Archbishop went to Le Mans, site of the Holy Cross motherhouse, on Nov. 27 and met Father Moreau to handle details. It was there that the two French speakers agreed that Archbishop Blanchet would put members of Holy Cross, as their numbers increased, in charge of a small college at St. Paul in the Willamette Valley, a minor seminary and a mission for the native Americans in the Puget Sound area. Archbishop Blanchet agreed to defray all expenses until the foundations became self-sustaining. For his part, Father Moreau and his council pledged to send three brothers to travel with Archbishop Blanchet back to Oregon.

In a letter, dated Dec. 1, 1846, Archbishop Blanchet wrote of his happiness in obtaining the three brothers for his small college. He said that he was beginning to read the Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross and was edified by them. He added that there was a vast missionary field in the Oregon country, and he requested more priests and brothers to arrive in the autumn of 1847 so they could assist Bishop Modeste Demers on Vancouver Island and the Princess Charlotte Islands.

Father Moreau replied that, as was his custom, he desired to add a priest as superior to the three brothers and offered to send an additional brother as well. In what seemed to be a moment of enthusiasm, Father Moreau wrote to Father Edward Sorin at Notre Dame on Dec. 14, 1846, that Archbishop Blanchet would take “Fr. Verite and three or four brothers back with him to take charge of a whole diocese.”

Surprised at the new suggestion, Archbishop Blanchet had a surprise of his own. He wrote from Namur in Belgium on Dec. 15, asking for two priests and four brothers, intending that the two priests could open a mission for Native Americans in White Bay in Puget Sound and the brothers work at the college. Archbishop Blanchet pointed out that there was nothing in the Holy Cross Constitutions about a submission of Holy Cross brothers to the bishop. He stated that the Oblates of Marseilles are totally subject to bishops and confidently opined that the good spirit that was evident in the Holy Cross Constitutions led him to believe that the same would be the case there. He asked Father Moreau to drop him a note about this issue.

By the following week, back in Paris, Archbishop Blanchet wrote that he had definitely decided to establish a mission for the Native Americans in Nesqually. He said that accommodations on the ship allowed only 23 persons, but one more might be added, if he were willing to sleep on a table or in a hammock.

On Jan. 2, 1847, Archbishop Blanchet wrote again, saying that he now had enough personnel for his seminary and college and returned to his original request for two priests and two brothers. That same day, he wrote to the president of the Council of the Propagation of the Faith in Paris that he was adding two priests and two brothers in addition to the 24 already on the departure list. One wonders where he was going to put so many people.

According to Father Kehoe, Father Moreau was caught off guard by Archbishop Blanchet's changes to the original agreement. Irritation was now in the air. Writing to Father Moreau on Jan. 8, Archbishop Blanchet said that Father Moreau had been the first to change the agreement in proposing to send a priest as a superior to the three brothers, stating further that other modifications on Moreau’s part had followed. As a result, Archbishop Blanchet cancelled the agreement.

It is no surprise, that, in all of this back and forth, one biographer of Father Moreau said that the whole affair resembled a vaudeville act, with Archbishop Blanchet always professing the highest sentiments of respect for the Holy Cross Congregation. To Archbishop Blanchet's credit, he did reimburse the congregation for the expenses of the three brothers.

With affairs settled, Archbishop Blanchet and his party set sail for home on the Etoile du Matin on Feb. 22, 1847 with his entourage of Jesuits, secular priests and the religious Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Father Kehoe posited that Archbishop Blanchet might have been more comfortable with the Jesuit order as opposed to Holy Cross because Blanchet was familiar with that order through his association with Father Pierre Desmet. Also, the Jesuits were an older order.

This is most likely true, but I think that the hesitation on Archbishop Blanchet’s part lay in the fact that with the presence of a priest superior to the brothers, Archbishop Blanchet would have no jurisdiction over them, as his letters to Father Moreau seem preoccupied with episcopal authority over religious. This was a sore point not only with Archbishop Blanchet, but also with his brother Augustin, the new bishop of Walla Walla, and later, Nesqually.

One is left to wonder how an early Holy Cross presence in Oregon would have fared had events gone the other way. Father Kehoe was of the opinion that this proposed venture would most likely have failed, citing that while the situation in 1847 looked promising, in two years the outlook was grim. Anti-Catholic feelings were on the rise due to the Whitman Massacre, the French and Indian employees of the Hudson's Bay Company had withdrawn to Canada after the cession of the Oregon territory to the United States and the discovery of gold in California had led Catholic families and religious south or to other missions, with the result that the archdiocese was heavily in debt.

It is small wonder that, perhaps with a bit of humble pie, Blanchet would write to Moreau on June 18, 1852 from Montreal, where he was on another begging tour for money. The archbishop stated that while he did not want to revisit the events of 1847, he felt that perhaps “it was after all a stroke of providence that the mission ended in disappointment” citing his travails in Oregon of a heavy debt. He added that he regretted and would always regret, the absence of Holy Cross in Oregon. Holding out an olive branch, he invited Father Moreau to reconsider and establish a foundation “in one of our villages or in the countryside” where free land would be available. Like a salesman, he detailed various possible missions and ways to travel from France to Oregon and urged Father Moreau that if he still had an attraction to “our beautiful country” to answer quickly. To this letter, however, there is no record of a reply. Father Moreau, who has been beatified, died in 1873, followed by Archbishop Blanchet a decade later.

The Congregation of Holy Cross did come to Oregon in 1901 and founded the University of Portland.

Schiwek is archives manager for the Archdiocese of Portland.