St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Jacksonville was dedicated in November 1858 and finished in 1859.

An Irish missionary in Oregon

The Rev. James Croke pleaded with the dust-covered miner not to buy that bottle of whiskey.

"I told him it would buy 2 pounds of nails," he said.

In 1858, Croke was on a mission. In fact, he'd been on an Oregon mission off and on for most of the past seven years.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1827, he left when he was in his early 20s to study for the priesthood at the Irish College in Paris, France, the school of choice for Roman Catholics living in Protestant Great Britain.

There he met Archbishop Francois Blanchet, who was visiting the school from the Oregon Territory. The church had sent him there in 1838. Blanchet was looking for priests to do missionary work among the settlers and Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

Enthused by Blanchet's description of the "pine-clad shores of the Columbia River" and overflowing with missionary zeal, Croke left for America in March 1850. After a three-month stay in San Francisco, Blanchet asked him to come to Oregon.

"I found the Oregon mission almost a total failure," he said later, "no longer the Oregon that my young imagination had made it. ... Its few churches mortgaged to the Hudson Bay Company ... and the unfortunate persecuted natives almost totally corrupted by the whites."

Discouraged but determined to succeed, Croke, on horseback, mule or on foot, traveled the Pacific Northwest from Montana, through Washington and all over Oregon. They were journeys that soon took their toll. In 1857, his never-ending health problems forced him to return to San Francisco.

A year later, Blanchet asked him to return to Oregon for one last mission — to build a church in Jacksonville.

Croke had first visited Jacksonville in 1853 and found a population "principally of miners, packers, storekeepers and gamblers, and ... very few families. ... The Catholics here are so few "… that it requires some time for a priest to hunt them out."

By 1858, things had changed.

"The Catholics of Jacksonville are very anxious to have a church built amongst them," he said.

On Nov. 1, Croke watched Blanchet dedicate the site of what would become Jacksonville's St. Joseph's Catholic Church. After conducting Mass in the county courthouse the following Sunday, Croke set off on a fundraising campaign to the mining camps near today's Cave Junction.

"In two days I collected $400," he said, "far above my most sanguine expectations for a place where there are not more than 70 men in all. "… Every man — Catholic, Protestant and Orangeman, gave something."

After eight days he returned to Jacksonville with $856 in donations — nearly $22,000 in today's money.

Just before Christmas, the archbishop of San Francisco called Croke home. He left with the Jacksonville church still under construction.

"If at any time, consistently with obedience to my Superior, I can do any good for any portion of Oregon," he wrote Blanchet, "I will be happy being at your Lordship's disposal."

In San Francisco Croke founded St. Mary's College, was named rector of St. Mary's Cathedral and rose to be vicar general of the San Francisco Diocese.

As far as we know, he never returned to Oregon.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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