Just east of the historic Pacific Highway north of Toledo lies one of the most important pieces of cultural history in the Pacific Northwest.
St. Francis Xavier Mission, more commonly known locally as the Cowlitz Mission, is the oldest operating Catholic church in Washington. Constructed in 1838, the mission was built more than a half-century before Washington became a state and 15 years before the formation of Washington Territory.
An article in the Chehalis Bee-Nugget in the 1910s describes the importance of Simon Plamondon, a retired employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to the Cowlitz region. Plamondon is locally regarded as a pioneer of the area as he took a land claim on the prairie; he would later set aside a room in his home for a ceremony to establish the St. Francis Xavier Mission, according to the Catholic Parishes of Lewis & East Pacific Counties.
The mission essentially played a huge role in merging the two cultures, as Father Francois Norbert Blanchet used a device known as the “Catholic Ladder” to relay the stories of the Bible and modern history to members of tribes who wished to hear of the Great Spirit. That ladder was copied and replicated by many other missions throughout Washington, Oregon and even British Columbia.
A replica of that ladder exists on the property today, with a guide that explains the symbols on the ladder from the account of the crucifixion to the establishment of the church. The ladder that exists on site today was carved by Fred Echenberg, a member of the Cowlitz Tribe and master woodworker.
As for the history of the early days of the church, not much exists as its early records were destroyed in a fire in 1901. Another fire in later years resulted in needing to rebuild the church into the structure that stands today.
A cemetery on the property is about 7 years older than the actual church itself, having been maintained at first by the Hudsons Bay Company in the early 1830s. Early records of the cemetery don’t exist, but several early settlers in the area are buried there in a beautiful piece of land that overlooks the prairie below and Mount St. Helens in the distance.
Several important names in Lewis County history are buried here, including Simon Plamondon himself. Church members take care of the grounds and maintain the cemetery and its headstones very well.
Today the church’s name still reflects its origins as the St. Francis Xavier Mission, and its congregation proudly celebrates its 177th year of operation.
A historical marker on Jackson Highway tells the story of the prairie and church, but stop onto the church’s property itself to learn more about the building, see the replica of the Catholic Ladder and more. They’re important pieces of Lewis County history that deserve to be seen up close!
How to Get There
Take Exit 63 from Interstate 5 and follow State Route 505 eastward/southbound toward Toledo. Take a left at Jackson Highway and proceed nearly a mile to Spencer Road. Take a right on Spencer Road and the mission will be on your left.