An Irish immigrant who blazed a trail through pioneer Oregon and remains one of the state's unsung heroes is Father James Croke.

From Kanturk in Co. Cork, Father Croke left Ireland following his ordination to the priesthood on March 16, 1850, for a six-month voyage to San Francisco. Once there he joined relief effort for a cholera epidemic in the city. For three months he labored among the sick and dying before finally departing for the the 'pine-clad shores of the Columbia River.'

He was assigned to St. John's Church, Oregon City, as an assistant to the archbishop of the fledgling archdiocese.

This was not Father Croke's first time to meet Archbishop Francis Blanchet. They met earlier at the Irish College in Paris when Archbishop Blanchet was on a recruiting campaign for priests. During this earlier meeting, Father Croke realized that Archbishop Blanchet's missionary vision for Oregon matched his own ideals, particularly the dream of converting Oregon's natives to Christianity.

Unfortunately for Father Croke, Oregon was different from what he had previously imagined. Years later he would write his thoughts to his sister back in Ireland:

'[I found] the Oregon Mission almost a total failure, no longer the Oregon that my young imagination made it. Its priests I found dispirited. Its Archbishop disheartened at what his zeal could not remedy. Its few churches mortgaged to the Hudson Bay Company for a sum of over $60,000; and the unfortunate persecuted natives almost totally corrupted by the whites.'

After six months in Oregon City, Father Croke was assigned to more populous Portland, with a view to constructing its first Catholic Church. He moved there in September 1851 and immediately began fund-raising. Before long, he had pledges worth $700. He obtained a donated site from Captain Couch at NW Sixth and Davis and personally cleared the trees from what was then virgin forest.

The first Mass was celebrated in the sacristy of the unfinished church on Christmas Eve, 1851. Father Croke moved into the unfinished structure 'through which the wind and the rain penetrated.'

It was Portland's third church, the Methodist and Episcopal churches preceding it.

'Here I built a church, in the sacristy of which I generally spent the winter months, and passed my time for the most part comfortably,' he later wrote. 'I did my own household work and cooked my own victuals. Yet I saw company at times. . . . Our fare was frugal, and our table-service rather scant, consisting, as it did, of our pocket knives, a one-pronged fork intended for the exclusive use of the Bishops, and a coca shell for drinking. We all eat out of the same pot.'

The church remained at NW Sixth and Davis for two years, until the congregation realized that the building was too remote from the people, who lived closer to the area between SW Washington and Jefferson, along Second, Third and Fourth Streets. The road to the church was a trail through the woods blocked up by fallen trees over which the congregation had to clamber on their way to church.

In 1854 the building was moved to a site purchased from Benjamin Stark at SW Third and Stark. Eventually the wooden church that Father Croke built would be replaced by a magnificent Gothic stone cathedral on the same site, which was dedicated in 1885.

Despite his church duties in Portland, Father Croke did not give up on his dream of undertaking missionary work. In 1853 he purchased a horse and set out on his maiden missionary trip.

'I steered my course toward the South: and since then have traversed those boundless regions, in every direction, from the Columbia River to the confines of California, from the Rocky Mountains to the ocean,' he wrote.

Referring to Oregon's natives, Father Croke noted that 'a farmer's life is too tame and monotonous for those wild hunters, who, from their very birth, are brought up amidst the continual excitement of either war or the chase.' He describes how as a 'black-gown,' he had to turn hunter in order to bring baptism to the tribes.

He described in awe the natives' deep sense of worship:

'I have been often awakened out of a sound sleep at night by the whole camp singing a favorite hymn,' he wrote. 'One old warrior, for instance, cannot sleep; he smokes a while, then prays a while, and in fine, raises 'the song' quite as unceremoniously as if he were the sole tenant of the forest. His next neighbor joins the chorus, and in a few seconds, the whole camp is astir, sitting up in their robes and blankets, and singing, perhaps, an 'Ave Maria' with a degree of fervor and strength of lungs, which would be most admirable, if only reserved for another time.'

The priest wrote that 'there is not a river or streamlet that rushes towards the Pacific that I have not followed from its source to where it falls into the ocean.'

Father Croke always recalled his homeland and the potato famine refugees who had found their way to Oregon. 'Do not think, however, that I labor for the Indians alone,' he wrote. 'I am a debtor to all - and to none more than to the 'poor exiles of Erin.' Hundreds of these poor neglected creatures had not seen a priest for many years, as they had long been wandering through the backwoods of America in search of a home. Judge what must be their joy when they see a real 'Irish priest' entering their log cabins in the far-off Oregon.'

Years of living wild took its toll on Father Croke. He had spent too many nights down in the wild woods, listening sometimes to the howling wolves and panther or the angry snarling of the black bear. Too many nights with a 'saddle for a pillow.'

In 1853 Father Croke contracted 'malignant fever,' which plagued him on his missionary work for four years. In the spring of 1857 he moved to San Francisco in the hope that a milder climate and plenty of rest, would restore his health. It did.

Father Croke returned for one last mission to southern Oregon in 1858, this time to build a church in Jacksonville, near Medford. He wandered the mines and towns of the Rogue Valley in search of donors. In a letter to Archbishop Blanchet he wrote, 'I took so small a sum as fifty cents in a grocery store from a man who was going to spend it for whiskey. I told him it would purchase two pounds of nails.' St. Joseph Church still stands in Jacksonville.

Father Croke returned to California and became a high official in the church there.

He died in New York's St. Vincent Hospital in 1889, the anniversary almost to the day of when, 38 years earlier, he had first set foot in Oregon Territory.