Catholics had gotten off to an early start in Boise City. Two priests – Fathers Toussaint Mesplie and A. Z. Poulin – arrived in the region about the time the Army established Fort Boise in 1863.
During their first years, they held services in private homes or available public buildings. Catholics built their first Idaho churches in the mining towns of the Boise Basin. Their initial attempt in Boise City burned to the ground only weeks after it was completed in 1870-71. Services then returned to private dwellings, or sometimes the chapel at the Fort.
As placer mining dwindled in the Boise Basin, so did parishioner contributions. By around the end of 1875, administrative control had reverted to the Archbishop of Oregon. That arrangement lasted ten years, while a handful of dedicated priests struggled to maintain a Catholic presence in Idaho.
|St. John’s Cathedral, ca. 1895. Illustrated History.|
Finally, in 1885, Bishop Alphonse Joseph Glorieux was appointed to run the diocese. At the time, the Boise City church was little more than a “shanty,” with four small attached rooms. The bishop quickly had a separate multi-room residence built, followed by an enlargement and upgrade of the church itself. In 1889, he added a hall for meetings and classes. By 1895, Glorieux had further expanded and refurbished the church, making the first St. John’s Cathedral something they could point to with pride.
However, as the city and the Roman Catholic congregation grew, Bishop Glorieux decided they needed a more drastic solution. Businesses had begun to hem them in, limiting their ability to expand. Fortunately, all that development also inflated the value of the church real estate. They were able to sell “at a good figure,” and purchased a full block further from downtown.
When the time came to design a new cathedral, church leaders turned to the firm of Tourtellotte & Hummel, who had also designed the Idaho state capitol. The architectural committee chose a Romanesque style, characterized by a symmetrical layout with large, square towers that convey a sense of mass, round arches, and simple, geometric façade work. The description by the diocese notes that its Romanesque style used “the German cathedral of Mainz as a model.”
The cornerstone ceremony included a special program of music, with full orchestra and a forty-member choir. The Idaho Statesman reported (November 11, 1906) that the church hierarchy would be represented by “the largest gathering of bishops at a similar occasion ever held in the northwest.”
|Cathedral, ca 1918. J. H. Hawley photo.|
To avoid heavy debt, Bishop Glorieux had the builders proceed in phases as funds became available. Thus, services began in the basement once the walls and roof were completed in 1912. The bishop himself did not live to view the finished structure; he died in August 1917.
As the structure neared completion in 1920, “some the most impressive features” were installed: numerous stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ and other religious motifs. The completed cathedral was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1921. The final form did not, however, include a pair of conical towers flanking the front entrance, as called for in the original concept. (These would have more than doubled the height of the building.)
Today, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Idaho.
|References: [Hawley]. [Illust-State]|
|“Cathedral History,” Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Boise.|