There aren’t many buildings in Vancouver like the Proto Cathedral of St. James the Greater on West 12th Street. The church’s pointed arches, steep-pitched gabled roofs and stained-glass windows stand out among the modern brick and glass office buildings and high-rises found throughout downtown.
Amy Parent, whose official title is pastoral assistant for faith formation but who describes herself as the religious education coordinator, treated around 20 members of the Angora Hiking Club and guests to a bit of the church’s history before leading them on a tour of the church’s sacred art and treasures.
Built in 1885, the Proto Cathedral of St. James is an example of Gothic Revival architecture. The architectural style, which reached its pinnacle during the early to mid-19th century, was often used in churches, schools and even rural homes. Its ornate, complex styles were inspired by medieval design and were a notable departure from the previously popular styles inspired by ancient Greece and Rome.
“The Catholic population in 1820 was 200,000 in this area. Over the span of about 30 years, it grew by a million on top of that, then to about 1.6 million in the 1950s,” Parent said. “We had a huge influx of people coming here.”
Why were so many Catholics coming to Vancouver? Parent said having an existing church — the smaller St. James Church built at Fort Vancouver in 1846 — was a draw, but there was another reason as well.
“They also came to explore the wilds of the Pacific Northwest,” Parent said.
One of the more common questions Parent is asked is: What is a proto cathedral? She explained that “proto” means it was a former cathedral.
“In 1907, Bishop O’Dea moved the cathedral to Seattle,” Parent said, which also meant moving the church cornerstone to Seattle. “It’s sad it had to be moved, but he was smart in that Seattle did get to be quite a bit bigger than Vancouver.”
The items viewed during the tour included dozens of pieces of art brought back by founder Bishop AMA Blanchet from his travels to raise money for the church. Among them were several paintings (later discovered to have been painted in Mexico on vegetable sacks), statues and vestments.
There is one item that many visiting the church won’t see — a 33-star American flag found crumpled up in a corner during one of the renovations. The 33-star version became the official flag of the United States on July 4, 1859, following Oregon’s admission into the Union. Parent said the flag is not among the sacred items on display at the church because it is a secular rather than religious item.
A trip to Vancouver to visit a former cathedral might not seem like the right choice for a hiking club, but for club president Craig Holt, it was a great day trip.
He said he especially liked being able to go up the spiral stairs to see the church organ and pipes, and the former bell-ringing room where a handful of orphans were housed in the late 19th century.
“I’m surprised they didn’t have any bells,” Holt said.
While the church did previously have bells, the tower now houses an electronic bell system. One of the original bells now sits outside the church.
Holt said he grew up in Chicago and often visited the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. He also attended the University of California Berkley, well known for its carillon bells, which helped foster his interest in them.
The Angora Hiking Club — based in Astoria, Ore. — will celebrate its 102nd anniversary on July 4. As the name suggests, many of the club’s adventures revolve around hiking, whether it’s an urban walk along a waterfront or tackling the Fort to Sea trail at Fort Clatsop. But the club’s adventures are not limited to hiking trips only. Past activities have included skiing, horseback riding, swimming, learning to identify mushrooms and more.
Rudi Fruth and his wife, Maria, traveled from their home in Ridgefield for the tour after seeing an article in the newspaper.
“I always heard the name Proto cathedral and wondered what a proto cathedral was,” Rudi Fruth said. “I’ve read about this church a number of times, so this was timely.”
Fruth said he and his wife recently returned from a trip to England, where they visited several cathedrals.
“Why do we go all the way over there? This is gorgeous,” he said.
“I heard about it and thought it would be a fantastic thing to do, to just become familiar with Vancouver, what’s in it,” said Vancouver resident Penny Slater.