The Jesuit Origins of Spokane

Today’s Inlander features an article on how the death of a Jesuit brought life to Spokane:

A desperate journey to Rome, a tragic telegram and an unstoppable Jesuit.

They all came together in 1885, creating a future that includes Gonzaga University and Gonzaga Prep, which turn 125 years old next year

“I jumped,” in January of 1885. “I jumped, and that jump saved the Rocky Mountain Mission,” recalled Father Joseph Mary Cataldo, when he heard a knock on his bedroom door one fateful evening.

Against his better judgment, Cataldo was in Fiesole, Italy — far from the many, many obligations pressing for his time back in the fledgling settlement of Spokane. But two regional bishops had insisted that he travel to Italy and appeal both to the Father General of the Society of Jesus — leader of the Jesuit order — and to the Pope, himself, for increased support of the Catholic community in the Inland Northwest.

Dutifully, Cataldo had taken a steamer from New York to Antwerp, Belgium, in the fall of 1884. But soon, as he had feared, his visit teetered on becoming a complete waste of time. To begin with, the Jesuit curia, or Society headquarters, was temporarily in exile from Rome and had relocated to Fiesole. Then, when Cataldo reached Tuscany, he found the Father General so ill that a substitute, a Vicar General, was making decisions in his stead.

It was from this Vicar General that Cataldo learned the Society would provide no additional resources — neither men nor money — for the remote corner of the globe they called the Rocky Mountain Mission. Society finances simply could not meet such a request. Finally, when Cataldo traveled to Rome for an audience with Pope Leo XIII, he received similar negative news.

Despair grew even deeper for Cataldo after a cablegram from America arrived at the Society’s villa. The message was intended for Cataldo, but, as he recalled, “my name was not spelled well,” and so the missive found its way onto the desk of the Vicar General. After reading the sad message, and realizing for whom it was intended, the Vicar General personally delivered it to Cataldo in his room.

Thus the knock at his door that echoes across the region to this day.


The clipped phrases of the cablegram announced that Father Louis-Marie Ruellan, Cataldo’s Vice-Superior for the Rocky Mountain Province, had died of pneumonia in Spokane. It was a crushing blow because Cataldo had placed Ruellan in charge of his many plans for Spokane for the duration of his trip to Italy. Ruellan’s assignments included the construction of Spokane College, the building of a church for Saint Aloysius Parish and another church to be dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, with yet a fourth project taking place at Saint Michael’s Indian Mission near Bigelow Gulch.

Suddenly, every prospect for Spokane appeared doomed.

But the Vicar General took an interest in the drama unfolding so far away and became so distressed at the genuine sadness of the priest from Spokane that, according to Cataldo’s memoirs, he undertook an impetuous action without consulting others. The Vicar “went to his room and wrote for me a letter, to all the Provincials of the Society, in which he said all he could, except ordering them … to help, each one as he could, the Missions of the Rocky Mountains.”

With this special passport to enter European and American Jesuit schools, Cataldo could recruit students to join the Rocky Mountain Mission, or the Catholic community in Spokane, or the college being built in Spokane.

The foundation of modern Spokane was sealed as the Vicar General wrote that letter.

Read more here


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    Good post.

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    Lickona should move to Spokane and edit The Inlander. Meanwhile I’ll manage the Inlander baseball team and Quin can tend bar. Joseph can be Fire Chief and Dorian would be the mayor. We’d have a big city machine and make people pay for protection.

  3. Jonathan Potter says

    And we’d rename it, The Inland Korrektiv.

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