Sacred Encounters: The Cataldo Mission

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Old Cataldo Mission
Photo by Jack McNeel


The Sacred Heart Mission at Cataldo is the oldest standing building in Idaho. It may be stretching the definition of “museum,” but the Mission is certainly historic, and adjacent to it is a 9,000-square-foot visitor center where early history is portrayed in a true museum setting.

The museum opened in 2011. Ernie Stensgar, tribal vice chairman, spoke at the event saying, “The Mission is a huge artifact, which belongs with the exhibit. Generations have come here to remember their spirituality, to remember their ancestry, and it’s a holy place for us.”

Father DeSmet brought Catholicism to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in 1842. The first mission was near present day St. Maries but was subject to flooding, and a new site was chosen near present day Cataldo.

Construction began on Sacred Heart Mission in 1850. It was built by tribal members and Jesuit missionaries, or “Blackrobes.”

They used no nails in its construction, yet the building still remains in good condition. Paint was limited, and workers used huckleberry juice to color portions of the ceiling, giving a feel of blue sky. That color remains, some 160 years later.

The Roman Catholic Diocese owned much of the land since the mid-1800s. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1962 and in 1975 was designated a State Heritage Park and named Old Mission State Park. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise gave the land and buildings to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in 2002.

The visitor center opened in 2009, followed in 2011 with the opening of the exhibit entitled Sacred Encounters: Father DeSmet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West.

This exhibit toured across the country. The opening exhibition, in Bozeman, Mont., drew 112,000 visitors. It progressed to many cities and three countries over the next three years but never came to Idaho due to lack of a secure facility with climate control to protect the exhibit items.

A local non-profit organization formed in 1998 to enhance the mission and provide a facility as a permanent home for the exhibit.

The Sacred Encounters display fills 5,000 square feet of the visitor center. At its opening, the Director of Idaho Parks commented, “this display will rival any Smithsonian display in Washington D.C. You will have a sacred encounter when you walk through these doors.”

Visitors walk from area to area, covering nine rooms. Some rooms contain static displays, while others are videos with music and voice. The intent is to show early encounters between native people of the region and Christian missionaries.

The brochure states, “in the beginning we were very different peoples. We came from totally separate worlds. But we were also alike. We also shared a belief in a mysterious power beyond ourselves that made all life possible.”

The first area contains an audiovisual with tribal elders talking of their spiritual world before missionaries arrived. The second area has a huge photo of Father DeSmet’s home in Belgium plus a chalice dating to the mid 1700s and a baroque alter from that era. Numerous church items are on display, including a letter from Father DeSmet and a Bible from that era. Items from his home in Belgium and scenes from his life with Indian people add insight to his life.

Other exhibits reveal the early history of the Salish people and the transition as horses first arrived and trappers came. Such tribal objects as a buckskin dress, a large root bag, moccasins, a fringed medicine case, and others are on exhibit.

Another exhibit area holds a primitive church, a reconstruction of the first mission in 1842, made of poles, with sounds of singing from the altar. Musical instruments are on display, including a clarinet that likely belonged to Father DeSmet.

Various other artifacts are exhibited throughout the museum. A quote by Peter Campbell, of Spokane/Coeur d’Alene, sums up the museum. “It’s a beautiful testament to American Indians and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe specifically.

The Sacred Heart Mission is the most visited heritage park in Idaho. ISI