Parishioners at North American Martyrs Parish in Seattle have friends in high places—in more than one sense. To be sure, St. Isaac Jogues and his missionary brothers intercede for the souls in their namesake’s parish, but parishioners who attend the 8:00 am Mass at Holyrood Cemetery’s mausoleum have an additional friend likely in Heaven, whose bodily remains are also in a high place: Bishop Augustin Blanchet.
This mysterious situation needs a little historical background in order to be understood…
The late Father Joseph Doogan wrote an account of an extraordinary event in 1955, but that report was buried and almost never saw the light. It was June 1955 and he had just completed a mission entrusted to him by Seattle’s Archbishop Thomas Connolly. The archbishop wanted the remains of his predecessors uncovered and moved to a new mausoleum in north Seattle. They were to be placed in shelf-crypts inside the new structure, with the first bishop of Western Washington, Augustin Blanchet, on the top row to the left of the altar. Despite the relative unfamiliarity of Americans with exhumation, it was supposed to be a simple assignment. Yet it turned out to be similar to Bishop Blanchet’s life: unusual and adventurous.
Augustin Blanchet was born on August 22, 1797 in the village of St. Pierre de la Riviere du Sud in what is now the province of Quebec, Canada. He and his older brother Francois were both ordained to the priesthood and later, to the episcopacy. They would continue their tandem ways as missionaries to the territories west of the United States.
In July of 1846 Father Augustin Blanchet was appointed the first bishop of the Diocese of Walla Walla, located in what is now the state of Washington. He was ordained in September of that year and then ventured out west the following year. His journey followed that of his brother, who in 1838 had traveled to what is now the state of Oregon, where he was named bishop of Oregon City.
Not all went smoothly for the brother bishops. Less than three months after Bishop Augustin Blanchet arrived in Walla Walla, Protestant missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife, and eleven others were murdered by Cayuse and Umatilla Indians. They believed that Dr. Whitman, who was unable to stop the spread of measles in the native population, had actually poisoned the natives.
The massacre prompted Bishop Blanchet to move out of Walla Walla. He was later named bishop of the Nesqually Diocese, which encompassed all of the present-day state of Washington. The diocesan see was located in Vancouver, a city in the southwestern part of Washington. Upon his death in February of 1887, Bishop Blanchet was interred in a crypt under the sanctuary of St. James Cathedral (now St. James Church) in Vancouver.
The Diocese of Nesqually was renamed the Diocese of Seattle in 1907 and the Archdiocese of Seattle in 1951. Four years later, Seattle’s Archbishop Connolly instructed Father Joseph Doogan, the head of Catholic Cemeteries in Seattle, to transfer the remains of the archbishop’s four predecessors to a new mausoleum at Holyrood Cemetery in north Seattle (now the city of Shoreline). It was supposed to be an ordinary event, yet it turned out to be quite noteworthy.
The remains of the first two bishops of Nisqually were still in Vancouver, in the crypt at St. James Church. It seemed that is where almost everyone in Vancouver wanted them to remain, including the pastor of St. James at the time, Father Robert Dillon. According to Father Doogan, neither Father Dillon nor the people who had gathered across the street from the church were in favor of the transfer.
Despite the crowd that witnessed the caskets being taken from the church, a tale even got out that the bodies were stolen in the middle of the night. Yet Father Doogan described a far different story. He wrote that he, Jerome Healy (superintendent of Holyrood Cemetery), and George Hoffner (owner of a funeral home in Seattle) were able to get into a hidden crypt area beneath the sanctuary, via trap-door. Two of the four available crypts were occupied: one by Bishop Aegidius Junger, the other by his immediate predecessor, Bishop Augustin Blanchet.
In full view of uneasy onlookers, the team of three men from Seattle loaded two caskets into a hearse parked at the side of the church. Then they traveled to Holyrood Cemetery in north Seattle, leaving the remains of the first two bishops of Nisqually in the sacristy of the mausoleum. The next day, Father Doogan and Mr. Healy returned to the mausoleum. They were accompanied by Father Doogan’s brother, John, also a priest and later named a Monsignor, who was then the principal of the recently-opened Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle. The men wanted to ensure that the remains were correctly identified so that they would be putting them in their proper places. Bishop Blanchet’s body was to be on the very top of a section of crypts to the left of the mausoleum altar, with his successors following beneath him.
Upon opening the top of the first casket, the three men discovered a large sheet of tin fastened to the sides. There was an oval-shaped piece of glass and a matching oval-shaped section of tin at the top where the head should be situated. The men surmised that this arrangement could be explained as follows: the sheet of tin was spread out over the bishop’s body, with a section cut out at the top and glass placed in it. This was so people attending the funeral could view the face, but not touch the body, of the deceased bishop. When the funeral was over, they thought, the piece of glass was removed and the section of tin it had filled was replaced.
When the oval-shaped piece of tin was peeled back, the Doogan brothers and Jerome Healy were astonished at what they saw before them. It was Bishop Augustin Blanchet’s face, completely intact! They recognized him from photos. There was no mistaking: This was indeed the casket of first bishop of Western Washington. They felt that they were in the presence of a pioneer in faith.
Whether the deceased bishop’s body was incorrupt due to the tin seal, some other aspect of burial, or to sainthood, remains unknown. In her enormously popular book The Incorruptibles, Joan Carroll Cruz recounts the lives of numerous saints whose bodies have not decayed, despite the passage of decades and even centuries. Examples include St. Catherine of Bologna, St. John Vianney, and St. Bernadette Soubirous.
While incorruption is not a requirement for sainthood, it can be an indication of it. Whether Bishop Blanchet’s perfectly-preserved remains are indicative of sanctity will take a long time to determine, since the Archdiocese of Seattle has no current plans for pursuing his cause for canonization.
Apart from the actual events of 1955, the strange story behind a written report on those events made things even more intriguing. An account describing the transfer of the bishops’ bodies was written by Father Doogan in 1955. A copy was sent to the office at Holyrood Cemetery and to the Chancery in downtown Seattle for filing. Years later, however, neither copy could be found. In 1993 Father Doogan wrote up another report describing the events of 1955, and it is from this account that we learned the story from 1955.
Whether we have here the first Saint Augustin of North America is not yet known, but what is known is that a missionary bishop’s remains were uncovered and shelved, while a report on him was shelved and then uncovered.
This article originally appeared in Latin Mass Magazine and is reprinted with the permission of the author.