Sunday, January 17, 2016

Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater - Vancouver, WA

In Vancouver, Washington, on the Washington side of the Columbia River opposite Portland, Oregon, we visited the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater. 
The block containing the church and administrative buildings.
The front entrance to the church itself. 
A side view.
A back view.
Steeple and distinctive red bricks. 
My first question was, what is a proto-cathedral, a term I'd never heard before? A proto-cathedral is the Catholic name for a building that was initially a cathedral, but no longer serves as one. In this case, St. James became the cathedral when the Diocese of Nesqually was established in 1850. The current church was built in 1885. In 1903 the seat of the diocese was moved to Seattle and in 1907 the name of the diocese was changed to the Diocese of Seattle. St. James Cathedral in Seattle is now the seat of the diocese. The diocese was elevated to an archdiocese in 1951 and is now known as the Archdiocese of Seattle.  
St. Mary holding a reproduction of the church in her hand. 
My next question was, who was St. James the Greater? In my Mormon background, that is not a term that is used. He was James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, an apostle of Jesus and what Mormons would style a member of the first presidency after the death of Jesus, with Peter as president. He witnessed the transfiguration and was the first apostle to be killed, executed by Herod Agrippa by a sword (Acts 12:1-2). In Christian art, he is often represented in the dress of a pilgrim, with a pilgrim's staff, pilgrim's hat, scallop shell, gourd, key, sword, astride a white horse and with the Cross of St. James. The pilgrim's staff is a walking stick used by pilgrims on the Way of St. James to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain where Catholics believe the remains of James are held. The stick usually has a hook so that something can be hung from it and often has a cross piece. The pilgrim's hat is a wide brim hat which helps keep off the sun and is also associated with pilgrims on the Way of St. James. It often has an upturned brim with a scallop shell to denote the pilgrim status. The scallop shell comes from legendary accounts that James rescued a knight covered in scallops, or that while his remains were being transported to Spain from Jerusalem, the horse of a knight fell into the water and emerged covered in shells. In the context of St. James, the scallop shell is shown with its outer surface showing. Pilgrims on the Way of St. James often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes and carried a scallop shell which he or she could present and expect to be given as much food as could be picked up with one scoop. The grooves in the shell that meet at a single point represent the various routes pilgrims traveled to arrive at the single destination of Santiago de Compostela. The gourd is used by the pilgrim to carry water and is often hung from the hook on the staff. The sword is representative of how James died. The Cross of St. James is a cross with a pointed bottom end, as if to be driven into the ground, with the cross bar being either a fleurs-de-lys or a moline. Oh, and "the greater" appellation distinguishes this James from the apostle James "the less," also known as James the son of Alphaeus, and perhaps also from James, the brother of Jesus as well.
This statue of St. James shows him holding a pilgrim's staff with a scallop symbol toward the top. I was surprised there was not more James iconography.  On the church website I see another depiction of James on the backdrop behind the altar. In this depiction, he is also holding a staff with a scallop shell on it. 
As I read about the history of the church, another question became, what is an archdiocese? An archdiocese is a diocese with a very large Catholic population, usually in a large metropolitan area, kind of a super diocese. The bishop of an archdiocese is known as the archbishop. The archdiocese is also called a metropolitan see or the head of an ecclesiastical province, which includes the archdiocese itself and other suffragan dioceses (suffragan dioceses are dioceses in a province under the leadership of an archdiocese). In this case, the Archbishop of Seattle also serves as metropolitan bishop of the suffragan dioceses within the Ecclesiastical Province of Seattle, which includes the Dioceses of Spokane and Yakima. These dioceses cover the entire state of Washington.
View toward the front altar.
View toward the front entrance.
The cupola above the altar.
The Holy Spirit as a dove, one of the figures in the cupola.
St. Mary and the baby Jesus in front of the altar.
French Canadian employees of the Hudson's Bay Company petitioned the Catholic bishop in Quebec to send priests to the northwest in the 1830s.  Two priests, Francois Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers were sent to Fort Vancouver, in present-day Vancouver, Washington, in 1838 and they started holding masses in the fort. They had to share space with Protestants which was not ideal. In 1845, Blanchet obtained Hudson's Bay Company approval to build a church just outside the fort. That church was dedicated as St. James in 1846. In 1850, the Diocese of Nesqually was established with Augustin Blanchet as the first bishop and he chose St. James as the cathedral. Blanchet's successor, Egidiuis Junger decided to build a new cathedral in Vancouver, this existing church which was completed in 1885.

I was quite taken with St. James and I'm not sure why. I suppose part of it was that it was cold outside and it offered a nice warm shelter from the elements. As we went in the priest was busy shuffling around the sanctuary getting things ready for services. A number of worshipers came in and prayed silently in the pews, while another went to confession. I suppose another reason was that the decorations are very warm, from the standpoint of lots of bright colors. Lots of dark reds and blues. In particular, the Stations of the Cross were the most colorful of any I've seen, with a shining gold background, Jesus in a bright red robe and other figures in bold colors as well.
Station of the Cross 2.
Station of the Cross 6 - Jesus encounters Veronica.
Station of the Cross 11 - Jesus is nailed to the cross.
An anchor stained glass window evinces the seafaring nature of the early parishioners. 
Noah's Ark - an unusual stained glass window subject, but again showing the seafaring nature of the parishioners.
Stained glass with chandeliers in the foreground.
In addition, there were still holiday decorations up, pine boughs and other evidences of the Christmas season surrounding various statues.
Mary and Jesus in a pieta pose.
Joseph, the carpenter with a saw, along with Jesus and Mary.

It was fun to visit a church with a history reaching back to the early fur-trading days of the American northwest. Until our visit, I'd always associated Vancouver with Canada. I think I vaguely knew there was a Vancouver in Washington, but had no idea where it was. 


  1. Great background on St. James and on the Catholic terminology I am not familiar with. I too loved the atmosphere of this church, and I especially loved the heavenly blue ceilings.

  2. Interesting information. I especially like the Ark window, and the colorful Stations of the Cross.

  3. I live near this church but since I am not Catholic I did not know the protocol to be able to visit it. This article was highly informative and I loved the links and the photos so I could tour the inside. Thanks for a job well done. Now I can go with an objective of seeing particular features and know what I am looking at.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. The priest was very friendly and accommodating. Don't hesitate to visit.

  4. The statue on the east side of the church is actually of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. His staff ends with the blooms of a lily, not a scallop shell :)

    The only statue of St. James is above the tabernacle, across from a statue of St. Augustine. The parish was originally named St. James the Greater and St. Augustine back when it was located down by Fort Vancouver.