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‘Sacred Encounters’ exhibit to return

CATALDO, Idaho – In the mid-1990s, an exhibit titled “Sacred Encounters” toured the United States. It related the convergence of two cultures: the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church, or “Black Robes,” with Native cultures. That exhibit, essentially retired after 1996, is now being refurbished and updated with current technology, and will become a permanent exhibit at Old Mission State Park in northern Idaho.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has been a major contributor to the restoration and relocation of the exhibit. The history goes way back to the 1700s. Cultural Resources Director Quanah Matheson spoke of that history.

“It goes back to one of our chiefs. His name was Circling Raven. He was the chief for nearly a hundred years and very respected. He had a vision that people with crossed sticks would come and teach a new way of living. He never got to see the Black Robes, but he told the tribe about it over many years. He passed on, but his son, Twisted Earth, kept up that vision. Twisted Earth got to see the Black Robes.”

Jesuit priests arrived in the 1840s. “They [Coeur d’Alenes] welcomed the religion and looked for it, asked for it,” Matheson explained. “It was in that spirit the tribe took on Christianity and the Catholic faith. A lot of our elders still have close ties to that. They’re the ones that wanted this [state park] building to be erected and the story to be told for future generations.”

Coeur d’Alene tribal members helped to build the old mission church, the oldest building still standing in the state. Begun in 1850, it was completed in 1853. “It was built by about 300 Coeur d’Alenes with no nails and no building experience. It’s a testament to their faith and willingness to take on that new religion.

“That’s part of the story the elders want to be told.”

The original exhibit required about 8,000 square feet of space. Much of the exhibit consisted of audio-visual material that was state-of-the-art at the time but is now outdated. Upgrades to modern technology are being made, and it’s hoped the project will be completed and in place in time for the annual Indian Feast of the Assumption pilgrimage to the mission next Aug. 15.

Old Mission State Park had a small museum, but nothing with the size or desired temperature, lighting and humidity controls for such an exhibit. That museum building was demolished last summer and a new building is nearing completion. It will be 8,000 square feet, with 5,000 square feet dedicated to the updated version of Sacred Encounters, and will meet all of its environmental needs to assure its protection.

The exhibit will contain about 80 percent Coeur d’Alene reservation material, since it will now be associated with this tribe, and about 20 percent from the Flathead reservation in Montana. There will also be a lot of Jesuit material from the Rev. Pierre-Jean De Smet, some of it from St. Louis and some from Belgium, where he was born.

Bill Scudder was manager of Old Mission State Park until his retirement in 2007. He explained the exhibit will occupy seven rooms and each will tell a little different aspect of the overall story – that of two cultures joining. “There’s even some emotional stuff, like a period of time when the Catholic Church prohibited tribes from using their Native religion, wearing Native dress, or even speaking their own language. There’s also a part where the church apologizes for those past problems.”

The total cost for the building and exhibit will be roughly $3.5 million. Various foundations, plus local and regional groups, have contributed money, but the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is by far the major contributor. Matheson commented, “We recently gave $1.5 million to allow it to go forward and get to this point where the building will be erected and the exhibit put in. But in the past, the tribe has given also and the two earlier gifts totaled about $200,000.”

The Mission of the Sacred Heart still stands on a point of land overlooking the Coeur d’Alene River, the same building constructed so long ago by Coeur d’Alene tribal members. There have been some relatively minor changes to the building, but it’s essentially the same building it was when built. The parish house was in disrepair and needed work, and that was done a number of years ago. While it’s not a consecrated structure and is now nondenominational, it hosts the annual Indian Feast of the Assumption each August.