It’s been traditional for the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Lapwai to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) Mass at the historic St. Joseph’s Mission Church at Mission Creek.

This year, that special service was called off, reportedly because of some structural problems with the old church.

One Sacred Heart parishioner visited the site following the announcement and found the trees surrounding the church were overgrown, the grounds were unkempt and it appeared the building was no longer being maintained.

Who’s in charge of the church, the parishioner wondered, and who owns it?

Finding the answer to that question has not been easy.

It has been closed for regular services for nearly 60 years, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise no longer has jurisdiction.

According to Lewis County Assessor Shelley Brian, the land on which the church is located is owned by Joanna Pfeifer, an elderly woman reportedly in nursing care in Newport, Wash.

The church building itself, however, is under the auspices of the St. Joseph Mission Historical Society, Brian said.

The Tribune made more than a half dozen phone calls, including to the Culdesac city clerk, a Nez Perce County commissioner, and current and former neighbors of the church, and was not able to find anyone associated with the historical society, nor a person who knew about the care and maintenance of the abandoned church.

Mike Gauthier, superintendent of the Nez Perce Historical Park at Spalding, said he does not know who is in charge of the church.

“The building hasn’t been maintained,” Gauthier said. The old church is “important to the park and part of the story (of the Nez Perce people), and we provide interpretation” through programs and a sign that has been erected near the church.

“I know the site’s important, particularly to Catholics out there,” Gauthier said.

But who’s got responsibility for it remains a mystery.

Nez Perce County Commission Chairman Doug Zenner, who lives nearby, did not have an answer either.

According to historical records from the Idaho State Historical Society and the Nez Perce Historical Park, the St. Joseph’s Mission Church was the first Roman Catholic mission for the Nez Perce Tribe, established in 1874 by the Rev. Joseph M. Cataldo, a Jesuit priest.

Protestant missionaries already had a presence in Nez Perce country for more than 20 years when Cataldo arrived in the area in 1867. Despite fierce competition from some of the Protestant churches on the reservation, Cataldo was successful in establishing St. Joseph’s. A local Nez Perce leader known as Chief Slickpoo gave permission to build a mission on the lands used by his band.

Cataldo left once the mission was established, and went on to found Gonzaga University. A large mission complex grew on the Slickpoo site, including a chapel that was built in 1868. But the complex was moved to a more secluded area at the present location, and the current mission church was constructed in 1874.

By 1910, the mission grounds included a convent, a children’s home and a church building. Fires destroyed the children’s dorms in 1916 and again in 1925.

The mission closed in 1958, and most of the buildings are now gone; however, the chapel has been preserved and is still standing today, though no longer in use.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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