Roots of Cathedral parish, city of St. Paul trace back 175 years

| Susan Klemond | October 21, 2016 | 0 Comments

A log cabin built in 1841 served as the first cathedral in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It was called the Chapel of St. Paul and housed the Cathedral’s first parishioners. Courtesy Cathedral of St. Paul

A log cabin built in 1841 served as the first cathedral in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It was called the Chapel of St. Paul and housed the Cathedral’s first parishioners. Courtesy Cathedral of St. Paul

In 1841 as Father Lucien Galtier’s pioneer parishioners installed a 3-foot cross on the roof of the new log chapel they named “St. Paul,” the young French priest also planted a seed of faith, which during the next 175 years would grow into the largest of plants: the parish of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

The chapel, located on the Mississippi river bluff in what is now downtown St. Paul, fostered the Catholic faith and also served as a catalyst for the capital city of the same name to develop around it. The story of the faithful who populated the new chapel, diocese and city of St. Paul inspires present-day Catholics and residents of the city, which narrowly escaped being named Pig’s Eye.

“It was the beginning of the city of St. Paul,” said Mark Labine, president of the Arden Hills-based French-American Heritage Foundation of Minnesota and author of, “In the beginning, there was a Chapel.” “The city grew up around the chapel. …They built this little log chapel, and it became a cathedral and a school and a hospital, and the name of the city and the name of the capital of Minnesota.”

The Cathedral of St. Paul is commemorating the 175th anniversary of the chapel’s founding with a historical exhibit. Archbishop Bernard Hebda will celebrate 5:15 p.m. Mass Nov. 1, All Saints Day, marking the chapel’s 1841 dedication.

Named for the apostle Paul, the log chapel became the first permanent Catholic settlement in Minnesota. Its diverse congregation of French-Canadians in the fur trade, farmers, Native Americans and bi-racial Métis had kept the faith, though they had limited access to formal religious instruction and sacraments because no priests had been assigned within several hundred miles, according to several historical sources.

In “The Chapel of St. Paul: The Beginnings of Catholicity in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1840-1851,” archdiocesan priest Father Richard Moudry wrote that Father Galtier arrived at Fort Snelling in 1840, a few months after his priestly ordination. The year before, many in his future congregation had been forced by the U.S. government to move off the fort’s reservation land in the Mendota area and had begun settling several miles up river in the vicinity of a tavern owned by Pierre “Pigs Eye” Parrant (so named because of a damaged eye).

In the Beginning, there was a ChapelFeaturing Mary Lethert Wingerd, history professor at St. Cloud State University

The event, sponsored by the French-American Heritage Foundation, will coincide with the Cathedral Mass.

6–9 p.m. Nov. 1

Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul

For more information and to register, visit

As the first resident priest, Father Galtier, age 31 and from an area near Lyons, France, served a previously unchurched population, Father Marvin O’Connell wrote in “Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962.” He administered hundreds of sacraments and offered religious instruction while also saying Mass and hearing confessions, both at the new chapel and at the older St. Peter settlement (now Mendota). He also worked to encourage his congregation’s temperance toward alcohol.

Months after his arrival, Father Galtier and the 13 Catholic families in the new Pig’s Eye settlement decided to build a chapel. He chose the name St. Paul because of the apostle’s connection to St. Peter, the namesake of the closest settlement, and to seek the missionary saint’s patronage in evangelizing Native Americans, several sources state.

Father Galtier selected a site on the bluff that was then donated by two parishioners. Catholics also contributed the building supplies — including hand cut oak and tamarack logs — in a spirit of generosity echoed by succeeding generations of parishioners who provided for the three cathedrals that followed.

“People believe in their faith,” said Celeste Raspanti, the Cathedral’s archivist. “This is an important part, to give their lives. They can’t give cash, but they can give this.”

Eight parishioners hoisted the rough logs and secured them with wooden pins to form the walls of the chapel, measuring 24 feet long,18 feet wide and 10 feet high. The chapel was completed in October 1841 at a cost of about $65, according to the records of Isaac Labisonniere, one of the builders.

Father Galtier dedicated the chapel the following month and later noted that its poverty reminded him of the stable at Bethlehem. He recalled that one year the humble chapel was festively decorated with candles and greens for a crowded Christmas Eve midnight Mass at which the congregation sang heartily, Father Moudry wrote.

“One moment they could get out of roughness of their lives and here was beauty, songs, music they loved,” Raspanti said.

Two years after the chapel’s dedication, the new parish had 454 members. In 1844, Father Galtier was transferred to Dubuque, Iowa, and Father Augustin Ravoux, another French priest who had been a missionary to the Sioux Indians, became the new pastor.

“These are fellow pilgrims on the journey, doing their best in the time that the Lord gave them, trying to be faithful to his call to serve as priests,” said Father John Ubel, the Cathedral’s current rector. “This is most inspiring to me.”

Father Ravoux authorized an addition to the chapel that doubled its capacity in 1847. But four years later when the first bishop of the new St. Paul diocese, Bishop Joseph Cretin, consecrated the log chapel as a cathedral, Catholics in the diocese numbered 3,000.

The growth continued, and two successively larger cathedrals were built in downtown St. Paul before work began on the current cathedral in 1906. What remains of the Chapel of St. Paul is a mallet carved from one of its logs.

As the cornerstone of the Cathedral of St. Paul was laid in 1907, Labisonniere was present, representing a bridge between the humble yet stalwart chapel and its majestic 20th century descendant.

Reflecting on the Cathedral parish of St. Paul’s legacy, Father Ubel affirmed the spiritual connection with the pioneer founders.

“I offer a prayer of thanks for their many sacrifices, and believe that somehow they must be able to know what has become of the little log chapel, hoping that they would be proud.”

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