By Br. Richard Cote, O.M.I., Historian/Archivist, St. Joseph the Worker Shrine, Lowell, Massachusetts
This year marks the 175th Anniversary of the arrival of the first Oblate missionaries to the United States in 1847 in what was then known as the Oregon Territory. At that time Oregon included the present states of Oregon and Washington.
A request for Oblate missionaries was made by the newly appointed Bishop of Walla Walla, Magloire Blanchet in 1846. Father Bruno Guigues, Superior of the Oblates in North America, relayed the request to Superior General, Bp. Eugene De Mazenod in Marseille, France.
Bishop De Mazenod had sent the first Oblates to Canada in 1841 and in just six short years, the congregation had expanded to the Pacific Northwest. Father Guigues, later first Bishop of Bytown (Ottawa) and Bp. Ignace Bourget, (Montréal), a close friend of Bp. De Mazenod, were both interested in this foundation. Father Paschal Ricard, O.M.I., had been appointed Superior of the Oregon mission on January 8, 1947.
On January 11, 1847, the General Council in Marseille, noted a commitment between Fr. Guigues and Bp. Magloire Blanchet of then Walla Walla, Washington: “There are serious reasons in favor of this project. The advantage of embracing all the savage (Indian) missions of North America, extending ourselves from one ocean to another, that of establishing ourselves in territories bordering on Hudson Bay, where the Congregation is already established and the good that there is to do in completely new missions among numerous and still infidel tribes …”
Having set sail from Le Havre on February 14, 1847, the missionaries did not reach Walla Walla until the following September 5. On January 2, 1848, the scholastics Chirouse and Pandosy were ordained to the priesthood by Bp. Magloire Blanchet. Georges Blanchet remained a brother for a long time and was not ordained to the priesthood until November 1, 1892.
A cold reception awaited the first Oblates. Bishop Blanchet’s reception of the missionaries was quite cold and when Bp. De Mazenod had learned of this, he was certainly saddened, and thought he had to warn Bp. Bourget:
“I was going to say in confidence how little the Bp. of Walla Walla had responded to the alacrity with which I had, in his pressing appeal, furnished him with devoted missionaries. Having been provided, during the period that our good fathers were on their way by sea, with what he thought would suffice, I believe he was annoyed to see them arrive. He received them in the first place more than coldly and does not appear to have become more amiable towards them since. What appalls me is that the distance between us and these good missionaries means that they are going to suffer greatly before I can get to them the supplies which I had to presume this prelate would furnish since he had asked me for them as a great favour, his letter being proof of that.”
Bishop Bourget tried to reassure the founder: “Father Ricard and his confreres may have been a little surprised by the coolness of the Bishop of Walla Walla. But I hope that when they have lived with him, they will be able to better judge the goodness of his heart. He is naturally serious, unemotional, and even chilly for anyone approaching him for the first time. May it please God that this is only the effect of travel and momentousness.”
The Bishop of Walla Walla asked the Oblates to begin a mission among the Walla Walla and Yakima Indians. Beginning in 1847 they built a wooden chapel and house at the meeting of the Yakima and Colombia Rivers. They dedicated this mission to St. Rose of Lima.
Besides the missionaries living in extreme poverty, a misunderstanding existed between Fr. Pascal Ricard, Superior, and Bp. Magloire Blanchet of Walla Walla that he wished to treat the Oblates as if they were diocesan priests. Father Gigues wrote to Bp. Bourget: “I received news from Oregon of Fr. Ricard. It seems that the Bishop of Walla Walla allowed himself to be influenced by his brother’s (Archbishop Norbert Blanchet of Oregon City) extraordinary ideas on religious orders. I had, however, made it a condition of this establishment to renounce such ideas I regarded as harmful to the good, and which would have taken me away from making this foundation.”
Difficulties continued for the Oblates in the Oregon Territory until August 15, 1878 when they left the Oregon Territory and were transferred to the Diocese of Westminster, British Columbia. On January 13, 1857 Fr. Ricard wrote to the Superior General: “Heaven in its goodness is prodigious in consolations for which we dared not hope. The action of Providence is visible. We ourselves are very surprised at the wonders of grace that are being accomplished before our eyes, and the Protestants are even more astonished. Every day, new bands of native peoples come to us to hear the Word of God and to steep themselves in the spiritual life by receiving the sacraments. And that, in spite of three feet of snow…”
Other Early Oblate Ministries in U.S.
In 1849 the Oblates accepted the challenge of extending the presence of the Texas Catholic Church into the Lower Rio Grande Valley. There were no Catholic churches in the area at the time. At the beginning the Oblates struggled with very little support from people in and around Brownsville, but gradually they began to gain more people’s confidence.
The Calvary of Christ is a traditional designation for the Oblates who did ministry on horseback in Texas and northern Mexico from 1849 to 1904. They were involved in the tumultuous events of the early Rio Grande Valley history: border lawlessness, civil wars in both countries, yellow fever and hurricanes. Seven Oblates died between 1853 and 1862, causing St. Eugene De Mazenod, Oblate founder, to exclaim: “Cruel Texas mission!”
Buffalo, New York
In 1850 Bp. Eugene De Mazenod accepted an invitation from the Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo to entrust to the Oblates a major seminary, college and parish. Three Oblates arrived in Buffalo on July 26, 1850. In 1851 the Oblates were put in charge of the Catholic College of Buffalo which also served as the Major Seminary. The seminarians that first year paid $130 a year for all their expenses.
In 1852 the Oblates began ministering at Holy Angels Parish. Holy Angels would be home to the Oblates until 2020. In its heyday, the parish school boasted an enrollment of over 500 students.
In addition to staffing the college and parishes, the Oblates in Buffalo were known for their preaching of missions. During a six-year period, they conducted nearly 200 missions and retreats. Father Edouard Chevalier, O.M.I. asserted: “I don’t think that I am wrong in saying, that without these missions half of these populations would be lost to Catholicism.”
The Oblates were offered a parish to serve the French-speaking people of Lowell in 1867. Father Andrew-Marie Garin, O.M.I. and Fr. Candidus Lagier, O.M.I. arrived in April 1868 and gave the first mission in the basement of St. Patrick’s Church.
The people were so inspired that within the month they raised money and purchased a Protestant church to hold their own services and named it St. Joseph’s Church. It was the first parish establish in Lowell to serve the spiritual needs of the French-speaking immigrants. In 1956 the church was dedicated as a shrine in honor of St. Joseph the Worker and the Oblates continue to minister there today.