In the early nineteenth century, the Coeur d’Alene Indians began to hear rumors of men in black robes who possessed special powers. Curiosity about these alleged powers inspired the tribe to invite the “black robes” to live amongst them. Jesuit missionaries arrived in the St. Joe River area in the early 1840s and built the St. Joe Mission in 1842. Due to seasonal flooding the mission was abandoned and relocated near the Coeur d’Alene River and modern day Cataldo, Idaho.
Father Antonio Ravalli modeled the mission after the cathedrals of his Italian homeland. Construction began in 1850 and three hundred Coeur d’Alene Indians and two missionaries built the ninety-foot-long, forty-foot-high, and forty-foot-wide building. The construction required creativity due to minimal building supplies. No nails were used, the chandeliers were made from old tin cans, and the walls were built by weaving grass and straw over a framework then solidifying it with river mud, a method known as waddle and daub.
When completed in 1853, the Mission of the Sacred Heart became an important stop for westward settlers, miners, traders, and religion seekers. The original goal of the mission was to serve as a reduction community, bringing Indians from nearby communities to one gathering place to focus on religion and the adoption of Jesuit agricultural practices. It also provided supplies and hospitality in this remote part of the West. By the 1870s, the mission and surrounding farm had grown to between eighty and one hundred acres and made full use of the Coeur d’Alene valley for grazing and cultivation.
In 1961 the Mission of the Sacred Heart was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1966 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A mural of the mission can be seen on the walls of the Brumidi Corridors at the U.S. Capitol building and is the only landscape depicted there that shows a building that still exists today. The mission is the oldest building in the state of Idaho and is now a part of Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park. The park includes the Mission and the restored Parish house (which was burnt down in 1887), along with two cemeteries, nature trails, and a visitor center.