Biography of Archbishop F. N. Blanchet

ARCHBISHOP BLANCHET. – The Most Reverend F.N. Blanchet ranked among the apostolic men who laid the deep foundations of the Catholic faith in this country. He was born at St. Pierre, Riviere-du-Sud, Quebec, Canada, September 5, 1795, was educated in the Petit Seminaire, Quebec, and was ordained July 18, 1819, by Archbishop Plessis. At that time Oregon was simply the name given to a territory extending along the Pacific coast from latitude forty-two degrees to fifty-four degrees, forty minutes north, until finally, in 1846, – the year of the accession of Pius IX. to the see of Peter, – all the territory south of the forty-ninth parallel was ceded to the United States.

In 1811, the Pacific Fur Company, of which John Jacob Astor, a furrier, and the founder of the New York house of Astor, was a leading member, established a trading-post called Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia river. Afterwards came the Hudson’s Bay Company, employing many Canadians, most of whom were Catholics. Many of them settled and intermarried with the Indians of the territory; and with these there was a demand for Catholic priests and Catholic worship.

Application was first made to the Right Reverend J.N. Provencher, bishop of Juliopolie (RedRiver). The demand for Catholic priests was earnestly indorsed by Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, writing from the British capital (1838). He applied to the Most Reverend Joseph Signay, then archbishop of Quebec. At once, in the April of 1838, Archbishop Signay instructed two of his missionaries, the Very Reverend F.N. Blanchet and the Reverend Modeste Demers, to take charge of the mission “situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains,” – a mighty charge for two men; but the men were apostles, and therefore as full of practical zeal as of practical faith. Father Blanchet was vicar-general, with Father Demers as assistant.

The journey of the devoted missionaries to their new mission was a long and most laborious one, familiar enough in early American history, though almost incomprehensible to us in these days of rapid and easy transit. They labored on their route, baptizing and confirming in the faith many Indians, who at various forts gathered to meet the long looked-for “black gowns” as they were called. Their destination was Fort Vancouver, which they reached November 24,1838.

Vancouver was at this time the principal fort of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and this the missionaries. Blanchet and Demers, made their headquarters, while for four years they toiled unaided up and down the wide domain of their mission. The letters of these fathers describing their work and surroundings were full of interest, and afforded valuable material for history. They learned the Indian tongue, and taught the natives prayers and doctrines of the church in their own language, Father Demers attending more to the Indians, and Father Blanchet to the Canadians. Some important conversions were made among the officers of the company, the chief of these being Dr. John McLoughlin, the governor of that company’s establishments (1842), whom, for his services to the church, Pope Gregory XVI. afterward made a knight of the order of St. Gregory the Great.

In September, 1842, two canadian priests, the Reverends A. Langlois and J.B.Z. Boldue, reached Oregon to assist their worn-out brethren. As an instance of their labor and its fruits, the following item, of many such sent to Quebec, will suffice: “From March, 1840, to March, 1841, were performed: Baptisms, 510; marriages, 12; burials, 11, communions, 60; one abjuration at St. Paul. Of the 510 baptisms, about 410 Indians, 100 whites, 40 adults.” On October 17, 1843, was founded St. Joseph’s College at St. Paul, with the Reverend A. Langlois as director. There entered at once thirty boarders, all sons of farmers, save one Indian boy, the son of a chief.

With the rapid growth of the missions the holy see, at the request of the bishops of Quebec and Baltimore, erected Oregon into a vicariate-apostolic (December 1, 1843), appointing Father Blanchet its vicar-apostolic, he receiving his briefs on November 4, 1844. In August, 1844, Father de Smet arrived from Belgium with six sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, four Jesuit fathers and some lay brothers to assist in the work of the mission. The papal briefs arrived on November 4th; and Father Blanchet, setting out for Canada, received his consecration in Montreal at the hands of the archbishop of Quebec. Thence he went to Rome, which he reached in January, 1846, and set before the pope the great wants of his vicariate.

At his intercession, in July, 1846, after the accession of Pius IX, the vicariate of Oregon was erected into an ecclesiastical province, with the three sees of Oregon City, Walla Walla (now Wallula), and Vancouver Island. The Right Reverend F.N. Blanchet was appointed to Oregon City; the Right Reverend A.M.A. Blanchet, his brother, to Walla Walla, and the Right Reverend M. Demers to Vancouver Island. The necessity of this division may be judged from the result of the missionaries’ labors at the end of 1844. Most of the Indian tribes of the Sound, Caledonia and several of the Rocky Mountains and of Lower Oregon had been won over to the faith. Nine missions had been founded, – five in Lower Oregon and four at the Rocky Mountains. Eleven churches and chapels had been erected, – five in Lower Oregon, two in Caledonia and four at the Rocky Mountains. There were two educational establishments, – one for boys and the other for girls. There were fifteen priests, secular and regular, besides the sisters. These figures may not look large to-day; but they were large at the time, and of great significance in a rapidly populating and growing region.

Meanwhile the archbishop of Oregon City had been very active abroad in aid of his new province and its dioceses. He sought help on all sides, and returned in August, 1847, accompanied by a colony of twenty persons, comprising seven sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, three Jesuit fathers, three lay brothers, five secular priests, two deacons and one cleric. The bishop of Walla Walla was consecrated September 27, 1846, and entered on his charge the following year, taking with him six priests, four of them fathers O.M.I., and one deacon. The bishop of Vancouver Island was consecrated in 1847, and entered on his charge the same year. With the arrivals from France and Canada, the ecclesiastical province in the fall of 1847 had three bishops, fourteen Jesuit fathers, four oblate fathers of Mary Immaculate, thirteen secular priests, thirteen sisters and two educational establishments.

The first provincial council of Oregon City was held at the end of February, 1848, the three bishops assisting. Each then departed to his diocese, the archbishop beginning with ten secular priests, two Jesuit fathers, thirteen sisters of Notre Dame de Namur; the bishop of Walla Walla with three secular priests, four fathers O.M.I., and twelve Jesuit fathers at the Rocky Mountains; while the bishop of Vancouver Island, not having a single priest, departed for Europe, and after visiting Rome returned in 1852 with a number of missionaries.

In consequence of local disturbances, the diocese of Walla Walla was suppressed, and that of Nisqually erected in its stead, with the same bishop and clergy, May 31, 1850. In 1852, Archbishop Blanchet assisted at the first plenary council of Baltimore. In the summer of the same year the sisters of Notre Dame de Namur left St. Paul for Oregon City, and in the following year went to California. In 1855, the archbishop started for South America to collect for his needy diocese. He traversed Chile, Bolivia and Peru, returning in 1857 after a successful expedition. Two years later he departed for Canada, returning the same year with twelve sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for Portland, two sisters of St. Ann for Victoria, some others for Vancouver and three priests.

In 1866, the archbishop attended the second plenary council of Baltimore, and, ever watchful for the cares of his diocese, returned with one priest and eight sisters. On July 18,1869, he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, and four months later left for Rome to assist at the Vatican council, where he met his early brother missionaries. He returned to Portland in 1870, and on July 28th of the following year his old associate, Bishop Demers, died at Victoria, British Columbia. To Bishop Demers succeeded the Right Reverend Charles John Seghers, consecrated June 28,1873. In 1878, Bishop Seghers was appointed coadjutor to Archbishop Blanchet, whose long life of arduous labor in the cause of Christ and his church called for some assistance in his declining years.

At this time, forty years since the creation of the mission, the archbishopric of Oregon City contained twenty-three priests, twenty-two churches, sixty-eight sisters, nine academies for girls, one college for boys, two parochial schools for girls, one female hospital, one orphanage, together with a number of societies and two Indian reservations with schools and stations. The first Catholic church in Portland was erected in 1852. In 1862, the archbishop moved from Oregon City to Portland; and this church, now considerably enlarged and improved, was made the pro-cathedral. And out of this grew the present cathedral, which is not yet completely finished.

There has been a slight increase in the number of churches, priests and institutions, since 1878. On July 1, 1879, Archbishop Seghers, the coadjutor, arrived in Portland and was received by the venerable founder of the diocese, surrounded by his clergy and faithful flock. In a few words of touching simplicity and sweetness, the aged prelate received and welcomed his youthful co-laborer to the field where he had planted and sowed and reaped so well. After initiating Archbishop Seghers into the work of the diocese, the venerable man chose wholly to retire from the scene of his active labors, and published his farewell pastoral on the 27th day of February, 1881, announcing the acceptance by the holy father of his resignation, from which we make an extract:

“After sixty-two years of priesthood; after forty-three years of toilsome labor on this coast; after an episcopate of thirty-six years; after thirty-five years spent at the head of this ecclesiastical province, – we may say with the Apostle St. Paul; ‘The time of my dissolution is at hand. I have finished my course. Let, therefore, the Lord dismiss his servant in peace; for truly my eyes have seen the wonderful works of his salvation.’ We came to this country, accompanied by the late Modeste Demers, the first bishop of Vancouver Island, in 1838, to preach the true gospel for the first time; and where then we saw nothing but ‘darkness and the shadow of death,’ we have now flourishing dioceses and vicariates, prosperous missions, a zealous clergy, fervent communities, and a Catholic people of whom we expect great works and noble deeds.”

Since that time he resided at St. Vincent’s hospital, passing his last days in reading, writing, and making occasional visits, until in the ripeness of his old age he was plucked from the tree of life by the angel of death. He died June 18, 1883, aged almost eighty-eight years.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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