In the nineteenth century, missionaries from the Society of Jesus, also known as Jesuits, traveled to the United States to teach Catholicism to the indigenous people. While their influence was felt across the United States, the Jesuits efforts were highly impactful among the Native American tribes in the Northwest. One particular missionary, Father Jean-Pierre De Smet dedicated his life to Christianizing and educating the Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene tribes—even learning their language. Under Father De Smet’s direction, the first mission in the Rocky Mountains, St. Mary’s, was built in present-day Montana in 1841. A few years later, in 1846, other Jesuit missionaries—Father Nicolas Point and Father Huet—began plans for a new church—this time in northern Idaho among the Coeur d’Alene Indians. However, the church they designed lasted only four years, as its location was susceptible to flooding.
In 1848, Father Anthony Ravalli began building the Church of the Sacred Heart once again. Built completely by the Native Americas, the Old Church was erected—rather famously—without using any nails. The Coeur d’Alene bored holes in the rafters and interlaced willow saplings to keep the boards together. The Jesuit missionaries then added their artistry with the flowered cloths hung on the walls, three carved and decorated altars, and a large picture of the Sacred heart that hung over the altar.
The church officially opened for services in 1852 or 1853. The Coeur d’Alene were receptive to the Jesuit missionaries. A daughter of the local chief, Louise Sighouin, was one of the first people to be baptized. Local woman suffragist May Arkwright Hutton relayed that the marriage between Louise’s adopted white daughter Mary and Louise’s biological son Antelope was the first marriage performed in the Old Church.
When the Native Americans were forced from their lands, the Old Mission of the Sacred Heart fell into disrepair. However, in 1925, efforts were undertaken to restore the church. Today, the mission still stands as evidence of the unlikely meeting of European Jesuit missionaries and Native American tribes in the nineteenth century.