Father Francois Blanchet knew he could expect bone-tiring work when he left Lachine, Canada in May, 1838. He was traveling with a large company of settlers and traders in the "Columbia Express" bound for Fort Vancouver. The man designated by the Hudson Bay Company to bring them safely to their destination was John Rowand. At Red River, Francois had picked up another priest, Father Modeste Demers.
By canoe, boat and barge, as well as on foot and horseback, Blanchet's trip covered 5,000 miles. He preached all along the way. Five and a half months later, he reached the summit of the Rocky Mountains. When he celebrated mass there at 3 A. M., the party still had over a month of travel before them.
On this day, November 24, 1838, Blanchet and Demers arrived at Vancouver. Their mission was to spread the Catholic faith among the Indians and white settlers of the Oregon Territory, an area of almost 400,000 square miles. It extended from Northern California to Alaska, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean!
Only an experienced man could have handled the load. And Blanchet was no novice when he came to Oregon. Son of a Canadian farmer, he attended seminary in Quebec and had several years of experience pastoring Micmac Indians in New Brunswick. There he had shown his zeal by learning the native language and English so that he could minister to a group of Irishmen. In that wilderness region, he traveled by canoe, dog sled, horse, and snow-shoe as conditions demanded. Later, working at Montreal during a serious plague, he showed himself so fearless in caring for the ill despite his own danger of infection that he won general admiration.
The zeal with which Blanchet and Demers undertook their duties earned them lasting fame. They established their first mission the same year as they arrived. Indians built them a log church. They established their second in 1840, north of the Columbia River in the disputed territory. For four years the two men handled the enormous load between just themselves, riding from settlement to settlement, winning new converts and calling lapsed Catholics back to the faith. Their success led to bitter charges by angry Methodist missionaries.
Blanchet became bishop of the region in 1843. In 1844, two other priests from Canada joined him. In 1845, he traveled to Europe, where he was consecrated as archbishop of the territory. He gathered 21 helpers and sailed back to Oregon in 1847.
Blanchet, the newly appointed archbishop, consecrated Demers as a bishop. After 46 years of hard work, he left a flourishing Catholic community in Oregon. This included a college, a cathedral and a hospital. He published several papers on the history of the mission in Oregon and a Chinook Grammar. As an old man, he traveled back to the east coast--this time on the newly-built transcontinental railroad.
- Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of Oregon, vol. 29. San Francisco, The History Co., 1886 - 88.
- Demers, Modeste. Chinook Dictionary, Catechism, Prayers and Hymns ; composed in 1838 & 1839 by Modeste Demers : revised, corrected and completed, in 1867 by F.N. Blanchet; with modifications and additions by L.N. St. Onge. Montréal : [s.n.], 1871, [microfiche].
- Flora, Stephenie. "Northwest Missionaries." http://www.oregonpioneers.com/missions.htm.
- Purcell, Richard J. "Francois Norbert Blanchet." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1964.
- Reilley, L. W. "Francois Norbert Blanchet." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Tragedy at Death Rapids." http://www.friendsoftrails.org/trails/me_walkway/dr/.
Last updated June, 2007