The beloved pioneer and priest served as architect, painter and decorator for Seattle’s first Catholic church, dedicated in 1870.
JUDGING BY THE scrapbook of collected stories told about him, Roman Catholic priest Father Francis X. Prefontaine was one of Seattle’s more beloved pioneers. C.T. Conover, himself a pioneer as well as longtime and often-quoted Seattle Times correspondent, described Prefontaine as, “large, ruddy, genial and jovial with a liking for his fellow man.” His relaxed candor included a taste for expensive cigars, whiskey and real estate. His reputation as a fine cook mixed well with his conviviality.
There were about 10 Roman Catholics living in Seattle in 1868, when the 30-year-old priest relocated from Port Townsend to make a try at building Seattle’s first Catholic church, largely with his own hands. It is interesting that he named it Our Lady of Good Help, for Prefontaine was from the start a skilled persuader of Puget Sound’s volunteering distaffs — some of them Protestants — who were, in turn, persuasive in their own communities. Prefontaine the impresario scheduled fairs and entertainment from Port Townsend to Olympia to raise funds. Beyond permission from the bishop to build a church, as a secular priest, he received no direct help from the archdiocese or any religious order.
Prefontaine, architect, painter and decorator, set the foundation for his parish at the northeast corner of Third Avenue and Washington Street. He recalled, “Every foot of it was covered with monster trees and dense undergrowth.” An 8-foot-thick fir that measured 230 feet was cut and planed for, at least, the sills of the church’s windows. Behind the church, the priest also built a rockery beside a stream that ran off First Hill. He kept a garden there for vegetables and flowers. When dedicated in 1870, the little church — 60 feet by 30 feet — seated 100. Times columnist Conover wrote, “It would hold about 200 people if the majority were children, and most of them were.”
A decade later, by evidence of the 1880 national census, Seattle had surpassed Walla Walla as the official boomtown of Washington Territory. In 1882, Our Lady of Good Help was enlarged with new wings and a spreading shingle roof that, the story goes, was somewhat miraculously saved from destruction during the city’s Great Fire of 1889. Conover “revealed” that in the midst of sparks and falling embers, an “old lady came and sprinkled some water on the front around the entrance. A workman explained, ‘The church is safe; she is sprinkling it with holy water.’ ” (A local weather-watcher credited a change in the wind.)
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In spring 1903, at the urging of Prefontaine and others, Bishop Edward J. O’Dea moved from Vancouver to Seattle and claimed Our Lady of Good Help as his procathedral. The bishop, however, soon changed his mind about building the archdiocese cathedral in the place of Prefontaine’s Our Lady of Good Help. The parish’s surrounds had become home to too many sinners: a skid-road mix of parlor and box houses. O’Dea wrote to the Vatican: “The Church of Our Lady of Good Help is located in the most disreputable section of the city of Seattle, and is almost surrounded by houses of ill fame. A great number of Catholics object to attend it on that account.” The bishop sold the church and looked to First Hill.
Next week, we will conclude with a few more of the barely turned pages of the Prefontaine scrapbook.