The first Catholic contact in what is now Idaho came from French-Canadian fur trappers during the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sometime around 1815, a band of nineteen Iroquois migrated from eastern Canada to Idaho. They brought with them the rudiments of the Catholic religion and often spoke of the necessity of having "Black Robes" to show them the way to heaven.
Over the next twenty-five years, members of the Salish (Flathead and Nez Perce) tribes made four heroic journeys to St. Louis, Mo., in an attempt to procure a priest. In February 1840, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, S.J., a Belgian by birth, was appointed superior of the Rocky Mountain Missions. He celebrated the first Mass in Idaho only July 22, 1840, at Henrys Lake.
The first Catholic Church in Idaho was built in 1843 by Father Nicolas Point, S.J., on the St. Joe River, near the present town of St. Maries. Later, the mission was moved to a new site on the banks of the Coeur d'Alene River. The new church, officially titled Sacred Heart, is popularly known as the Cataldo Mission, named after a much-loved Jesuit missionary. The church was opened for services in 1853 and is the oldest building still standing in Idaho.
From 1840-60, Catholics were numbered among the members of the northern tribes of Native Americans. In 1862, a gold rush began in southern Idaho in an area known as the Boise Basin. Many mining settlements sprang up and the population reached the tens of thousands. Many of the new arrivals were Irish Catholic miners from the exhausted gold mines of California.
On March 5, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the Territory of Idaho. Five years later, on March 3, 1868, Pope Pius IX declared Idaho a vicariate apostolic. The vicariate and the territory consisted of what is now the state of Idaho and western portions of what are now Montana and Wyoming. The Rev. Louis Aloysius Lootens, born in Belgium, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was named first Vicar Apostolic of Idaho. He was consecrated bishop in (Old) St. Mary's Cathedral on August 9, 1868.
The entire population of Idaho at that time was somewhat over 20,000 persons, half of whom were of European descent, with about 6,000 Native Americans and 4,000 Chinese. The total Catholic population was about 1,500.
Within a year of his arrival in Idaho, Bishop Lootens was called to Rome to participate in the First Vatican Council of 1870. When he returned, the gold rush had ended, leaving ghost towns throughout the territory. Bishop Lootens submitted his resignation, which was accepted on July 16, 1876. He had returned to Victoria, British Columbia, where he died on January 12, 1898. His remains were transferred to Boise on May 30, 1968, during the centennial of the vicariate.
A new vicar apostolic was not appointed until eight years later, on October 7, 1887. He was the Rev. Alphonse Joseph Glorieux, also born in Belgium, and then president of St. Michael's College in Portland, Ore. While attending the Third Council of Baltimore, he was consecrated bishop on April 19, 1885, in the Cathedral of the Assumption in that city.
By this time, both the vicariate and the territory of Idaho had been restructured to their present boundaries. Bishop Glorieux made Boise City his see city and established the parish church of St. John the Evangelist as his cathedral. St. John the Evangelist is the patron saint of the Diocese of Boise.
The opening of vast tracts of public lands in the West to settlement and the coming of the railroad greatly increased the population of Idaho. On August 25, 1893, the silver jubilee of the vicariate, Pope Leo XIII established Boise City as a diocese, and Bishop Glorieux was named the first bishop. There were approximately 7,000 Catholics in the diocese. Bishop Glorieux died in Portland, Ore., on the anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Boise, August 25, 1917. He had been a bishop for 32 years in Idaho. He is buried in Boise.
On Feb. 6, 1918, Msgr. Daniel Mary Gorman, a priest of the Diocese of Dubuque, Iowa, was appointed second bishop of Boise. He was born in Wyoming, Iowa. At the time of his appointment he was president of Dubuque College. During his nine years as bishop, he added 32 diocesan priests, completed the cathedral to its present size in 1921, and doubled the enrollment in parish schools. He died in Lewiston, Idaho, on June 9, 1927.
The third Bishop of Boise, Edward Joseph Kelly, was the first native of the Pacific Northwest to be appointed a bishop. He was born in The Dalles, Ore., and was a priest of the Diocese of Baker City. He was consecrated in the Cathedral of St. Francis De Sales in Baker City on March 6, 1928. He served as Bishop of Boise for 28 years and died in Boise on April 21, 1956. He is buried in that city.
The fourth Bishop of Boise was James Joseph Byrne, born in St. Paul, Minn., and later auxiliary bishop of that diocese. He was installed in St. John's Cathedral on Aug. 29, 1956. On March 7, 1962, he was appointed Archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, and died there on August 2, 1996.
The fifth Bishop of Boise, Sylvester William Treinen, born in Donnelly, Minn., a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., was consecrated in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck on July 25, 1962. He was installed in Boise on August 3 of that year.
Like his predecessor Bishop Lootens, Bishop Treinen was summoned to Rome to attend an Ecumenical Council. He was present at three sessions of the Second Vatican Council and spent his administration implementing the decrees of that council. Bishop Treinen retired on Aug. 17, 1988, and died in Missoula, Mont., on September 30, 1996. He served in Idaho as a bishop for 34 years, the longest in the history of the diocese.
The sixth Bishop of Boise, Msgr. Tod David Brown, born in San Francisco, was a priest of the Diocese of Monterey in California. He was ordained and installed as bishop in Boise on April 3, 1989. He was appointed the third Bishop of Orange in California on June 30, 1998.
Bishop Michael P. Driscoll was appointed the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Boise on Jan. 19, 1999. He served more than 15 years before reaching the mandatory retirement age at 75. On Nov. 4, 2014, he had his retirement accepted by Pope Francis, who appointed Bishop Peter F. Christensen as Eighth Bishop of Boise. He was installed on Dec. 17, 2014.
Early in this century, many Basque people began immigrating to Idaho, primarily to work in the sheep industry of southern Idaho. There are approximately 15,000 persons of Basque heritage now living in Idaho, most of whom are Catholic.
Large numbers of immigrants from Mexico began arriving in Idaho shortly after the Second World War to work in the agricultural industry. Thousands have settled permanently in Idaho, and it is estimated that especially in the south of Idaho, Hispanics now constitute over half of the Catholic population.
In recent decades, many immigrants from Southeast Asia have settled in Idaho and are a significant membership of the church, especially in the Boise area. The present population of Idaho is somewhat over 1 1/2 million, of whom approximately ten percent, or 165,000 are Catholic.
Through Catholic Charities of Idaho, established in 2000, and many other diocesan and parish-based programs, the Diocese of Boise assists the homeless, the hungry, families in crisis, at risk youth, refugees, seniors, and those who are imprisoned.
From its humble beginnings to now, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise has played an important role in the state’s history as it continues to work to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ and build His Kingdom in Idaho.