Idaho's Old Mission State Park: A Church Hand-Built Without Nails

Old-west history buffs will enjoy northern Idaho's Old Mission State Park, where a cathedral-like church rose in the 1850s almost like a miracle in the wilderness.

The state's oldest standing building, the Old Mission church was hand-built by Jesuit priests and the local Coeur d'Alene Indians — without using a single nail!

Fashioned from trees cut in nearby mountains, massive frame timbers and rafters held together by mortise joints and wooden pegs created a framework 90 feet high, 40 feet wide and over 100 feet long.

So-called “wattle and daub”–saplings interwoven with grass and then plastered with mud–now lies under clapboard walls. But I learned the underlying mixture is still visible in one small room near the altar.

Father Antonio Ravalli, an Italian-born sculptor and physician, oversaw the mission's construction. This amazing man hand-carved the altar, which was painted to look like polished marble, and two statues. The priest's other paintings and handcrafted touches made me feel like I was walking into a museum of Renaissance art!

I found more exhibits in the park's visitors center and a restored 1880s parish house. You can also hike two trails, one leading to the Mission Flats, where the Indians once camped, fished and farmed. Keep your eyes open for wildlife and heavenly views of the Coeur d'Alene River Valley.

Father Ravalli created something special here more than 150 years ago. The church is a fitting tribute to his extraordinary skills and vision.

Fast Facts

Old Mission State Park is in a day-use park northern Idaho near Cataldo, roughly 24 miles southeast of Coeur d'Alene and just southeast of where State Highway 3 meets I-90 Exit 39.
For details, call 1-208-682-3814.

More to see

Hells Canyon, North America's deepest gorge, runs along the border of Idaho and Oregon, about 120 miles south of Coeur d'Alene.

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