I was doing some research at Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the northeastern Oregon-western Idaho border, when a sudden storm led me to discover a center of Catholic life in the Northwest.
After completing my research, I drove to Baker City, Ore., to spend the night. But when I arrived, I learned that a severe storm had forced all the campers into motels, and, as a result, I couldn’t find a motel room for the night. Over a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, I explained my dilemma to a waitress who suggested that I contact the local churches.
I put a call in to the rectory of St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, explained the circumstances, and was invited to spend the night at the rectory. The next morning, I rolled out of bed, attended Sunday Mass, and fell in love with both the church and its liturgy.
The cathedral celebrated its centennial in 2008. But on Jan. 24, a special Mass will mark the feast of its patron saint, St. Francis de Sales. As a journalist and a Catholic, I feel particularly proud of my connection to this cathedral and this feast: St. Francis de Sales, well known for the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life, is the patron saint of Catholic journalists.
The cathedral was built with volcanic tuff that was transported to Baker from nearby Pleasant Valley. At the same time, the rectory and St. Francis Academy (now closed) were built from the same materials.
Baker Bishop Robert Vasa attends various functions here, including ordinations and confirmations, even though in 1988, the chancery offices were moved to the city of Bend, one of the fastest-growing communities in Oregon and a more centralized location. It is 240 miles from Baker City.
With an imposing series of steps in front of the main doors, the cathedral features two steeples with a simple cross on the top of each. The steeple on the right contains bells that are rung by hand prior to and after liturgical functions. The steeple on the left contains a carillon which is programmed to play at certain times.
The cathedral, which holds 450 people, has a warm, inviting atmosphere, and the stained glass windows along the sides and behind the main altar, as well as rose windows on either side of the sanctuary, help to create a holy, reverent and prayerful aura.
Go West, Young Man
Malta native Father Julian Cassar is the cathedral’s rector, running the church and parish on a daily basis. While serving as a priest in New York, he told his spiritual director, Father Benedict Groeschel, that he wanted the challenge of missionary work. The well-known spiritual author and speaker knew that Bishop Vasa was in dire need of priests, so he recommended that Father Cassar go to Oregon.
“I also wanted a little bit of a challenge in reaching out to the missions,” Father Cassar told the Register.
He set three personal goals when he came to this western mission country in 2003 — to milk a cow, shoot a gun, and ride a horse. He has accomplished all three.
He has also been writing a weekly article for a Maltese newspaper about parish life at the cathedral and about the life of the Church in America. To his readers, inhabitants of an island nation that is about twice the size of Washington, D.C., his descriptions must spark feelings of wonder and awe.
If the cathedral is not on as grand a scale as, say, St. Patrick’s in New York, the land is. The church sits in the shadows of the Elkhorn Mountains, and the parish boundaries go 20 miles north to St. Anthony Mission Church in North Powder, 54 miles east to St. Therese Mission Church at Halfway, 45 miles south to St. Joseph Mission Church at Unity, and 50 miles west to the next parish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary in John Day, Ore.
Writing in the April 2006 issue of Extension magazine, Father Cassar explained the travels he undertakes to the mission churches.
“North Powder is a 40-mile round-trip every Saturday evening, and Halfway is another 110 miles round-trip, driving through a meandering canyon where you have to maneuver around falling rocks, dashing sage rats, and hesitant deer,” he wrote. “The other mission is in Unity, another 88-mile round-trip. You have to traverse a scintillating mountain pass that has 129 sharp curves and keeps you on edge for its 14-mile trek, especially in the dark and with packed ice on the road.
“I call it the ‘doozey’ Dooley Mountain, and it is one of the biggest challenges any missionary priest can face,” said Father Cassar. “But with the Lord and an occasional parishioner as my co-pilot, it is a challenge that I meet with courage, a sense of adventure, and lots of prayer.”
Joseph Albino is based
in Syracuse, New York.
BIG COUNTRY. Century-old St. Francis de Sales Cathedral sits in the shadows of the Elkhorn Mountains. Photos by Father Julian Cassar
Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales
2235 First St.
Baker City, Ore. 97814
Getting There: From Interstate Highway 84, at Exit 304, exit on to Campbell Street; make a right turn, then left at the traffic light onto Main Street. Go right onto Church Street. The cathedral is on the right-hand side of the road at 2235 First Street.
Planning Your Visit: Mass is held at St. Anthony’s Mission Church in North Powder on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and at the cathedral on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. in English and noon in Spanish. Mass is also offered at 4 p.m. on Sundays at St. Joseph Mission Church in Unity during the winter months and at 5 p.m. during the summer months. There is a Mass at St. Therese in Halfway on Sundays at 4 p.m. during the winter and at 5 p.m. during the summer. Confessions are heard each Saturday from noon to 1 p.m. and also during the Cathedral penitential services during Advent and Lent.