Idaho History: Boise's Catholics had services for years before they had a church

IDAHO HISTORY

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJune 2, 2013 

The first Catholic religious service in Boise was held in 1863 in the little log cabin of John and Mary O'Farrell, a building that now stands on Fort Street. When Mary saw two horsemen in black clothing, riding at a distance from their cabin, she told John she thought they might be priests, and urged him to ride after them and bring them to town to perform mass for the young town's few Catholics. The priests were Fathers Toussaint Mesplie and Andre Poulin, a Frenchman and a French Canadian.

Thomas Donaldson, who knew both men well for several years in the 1870s, described them in his delightful reminiscence "Idaho of Yesterday." He remembered Mesplie as "short and stout with keen black eyes and closely cropped hair. Many were the delightful chats we had in my home. He was a genial little man, smart and cunning, and a general favorite." Mesplie was hired by the U.S. Army to serve as chaplain at Fort Boise, where many of the soldiers were Irish Catholics. Donaldson remembered Father Poulin as "enormously large - he weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Always wearing a large sombrero and carrying an immense cane, he was a noted figure in the territory. "

The large population of Catholics in Boise Basin demanded the attention of the church more than did little Boise city, and in the 1860s the two priests spent most of their time and energy there. They built churches in the basin's principal towns: St. Joseph's Church in Idaho City was ready for services in November 1863; St. Thomas Church at Placerville was dedicated Dec. 20, 1863; St. Dominic's at Centerville was dedicated on Christmas day 1863. Most of these small wooden buildings were 20x40 feet in size. Two of them were not fated to last long. St. Joseph's was destroyed in Idaho City's catastrophic fire of 1867. Father Mesplie's St. Thomas Church at Placerville collapsed under the weight of heavy snow during the winter of 1864-65. Both were rebuilt soon after.

In January 1870, the Statesman reported that the building of Boise's first Catholic Church was "well underway on the block east of the county square. The building is 20x40 feet, sides 14 feet high, and the ceiling arched to the height of 19 feet. There will be a vestry, and all the doors and windows will be in the Gothic style." The church, named St. Patrick's after the patron saint of Ireland, was dedicated on Christmas day 1870. Less than three weeks later on Jan. 12, 1871, it was totally destroyed by fire. John and Mary O'Farrell again made their modest home available for services.

On Nov. 25, 1871, the Statesman noted, "If sufficient funds will be pledged to justify it, the building of a Catholic Church in Boise city will soon be undertaken. The fire last winter, which destroyed their just-completed church, somewhat discouraged the Catholic community, but they have about decided to renew their efforts.

It would be five years before the Statesman could report on Dec. 23, 1876: "The new Catholic church, though lacking something of completion, will be in readiness for divine service on Christmas Eve." The church of St. John the Evangelist was at the northwest corner of Ninth and Bannock. It became a cathedral when the Right Rev. Alphonsus Joseph Glorieux was made bishop of Boise on Aug. 26, 1893. It was he who led the effort to build the present St. John's Cathedral from the plans of Boise architects Tourtellotte & Hummel. The cornerstone was laid on Nov. 11, 1906.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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