Julie McDonald: St. Francis Xavier Mission pilgrimage a rite of passage for Jesuit High School seniors


Every September for nearly three decades, hundreds of seniors from Jesuit High School in Portland have trekked a dozen miles along Spencer Road northeast of Toledo to celebrate Mass inside the Pacific Northwest’s oldest Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier Mission.

Under sunny skies on Saturday, 280 students, accompanied by parents and faculty, left the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery at the end of Spencer Road for the annual pilgrimage, a rite of passage for seniors who enjoy camaraderie while stopping along the route to pray and reflect on their high school experiences, their community, and their future.

The school’s theme for 2023 is based on a quote from American author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “Continue to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”

I drove to the salmon hatchery about 10 a.m. to see if the pilgrimage had started and found hundreds of excited teenagers leaving the Barrier Dam in one lane of the road, trailing behind a redheaded young man bearing a staff with a white cross on a black flag. I snapped a few photos, climbed back into my car and followed 10 porta-potties towed behind vehicles up the hill. 

I headed east to Morton for the inaugural 11 a.m. weekly gathering of the East Lewis County Writers and Other Word Smith Artists at Rivers Coffeehouse and Bistro. As I drove home in my air-conditioned car, I tried to calculate how long it would take those energetic youngsters to hike 10 to 12 miles. Just after 4 p.m., I left for the mission, where dozens of kids gathered on the grass outside the historic brick church while others topped the hill beside the cemetery and rushed to rest on the front lawn.

Liam Cassiday, of Vancouver, the senior holding the flag who coordinated the pilgrimage this year with Kaylee Clark of Beaverton, described it as “a religious experience.”

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was nice to be able to be with my friends on a nice, long walk and just talk and learn more about people.”

The trek offered an opportunity to reflect and pray, he said, while considering “what God means to me and how God works in my life.”

Ethan Strong, of Tigard, Oregon, described the experience as “fun,” walking with his friends for a dozen miles, talking and eating a picnic lunch.

“There were some aspects where it was religious,” he said. “We read a prayer and tossed a rock in the river to show losing our sins and losing the weight. But on other things, we could talk and just hang out. We were all laughing, having fun. If it was just religious, I don’t think it would be the same thing as community. But if it was just social, I don’t think anyone would hold it truly dear.” 

“I thought it was enlightening, both spiritually and communal,” said Sasha Atencio, of Hillsboro, Oregon.

Her friend, Vivian Nguyen, described the pilgrimage as “inspiring,” following a path paved by other Christians seeking inspiration on spiritual journeys to places considered holy.

“For us to be able to replicate that is really just inspiring,” she said. “It really taught us what it means to do things together, especially as a Jesuit community.”

Chatting with one another during the walk toward a destination gave them an opportunity to forge that community and realize, she said, “why community is important and why people are important.”

She also described the history of the pilgrimage and the state’s oldest Catholic church as “really cool and remarkable.”

I think so too. 

Nearly 185 years ago, on Sunday, Dec. 16, 1838, Father Francis Norbert Blanchet celebrated the first Mass on the Cowlitz Prairie where French-Canadians worked for the Hudson’s Bay Co. He co-founded the Cowlitz Mission with Father Modeste Demers, and together they built a log chapel within a year. The pair created the Catholic Ladder to teach the Bible through illustrations to Native Americans. The nearby cemetery was started in 1831, and the Sisters of Providence ran a convent and school nearby in the late 1800s. 

In 1879, the church was replaced by a larger wooden building, but in 1901, a fire destroyed it and led to the death of Father Van Holdebeke, who suffered injuries while trying to save parish records. Flames devoured another chapel in 1916. Fifteen years after it was rebuilt in brick, another fire damaged the interior. In 1932, the parish constructed the brick building that stands on the historic site today. Just northwest of the church, St. Mary’s Academy, a girls’ boarding school, operated from 1911 to 1973. Today, the Cowlitz tribe uses the remodeled building primarily as elder housing.

As part of the pilgrimage, the students learned about the history of St. Francis Xavier Mission and celebrated Mass inside the tiny chapel.

Since September 1996, more than 7,000 Jesuit High School students, parents, and faculty have followed the pilgrimage from the hatchery to the mission and spent the night outside during good weather and inside the St. Joseph parish hall when it’s rainy.

“Everyone in the church that night knew that this was a special place to pray,” the school wrote in a  2013 letter congratulating the mission on its 175th anniversary. “We are honored to have shared in the 175-year legacy you celebrate today.”

After the walk, several dozen students wash the feet of their fellow walkers as an act of service. Parents help set up camp and prepare meals. The students eat a meal and celebrate Mass, ending the evening with a singalong.

Principal Khalid Maxie, who has worked at Jesuit for 12 years, completed his first pilgrimage Saturday.

“It’s amazing — nothing like a class being able to come together with each other, specifically as a class without the rest of the school here,” he said. “This is the biggest thing they’ll do as a class.”

Even prom won’t draw as many students, he said.

“For me as principal, it’s a true sign of the community that they built and that they will continue to build,” Maxie said. “They’re continually challenged, even on this pilgrimage. If there are classmates that you have not had a chance to talk to during your time, this is a perfect opportunity to step outside of your comfort group and your friend group and make sure you speak to those people.”

They were encouraged to do just that. He appreciated the community’s support of the pilgrimage.

“People on the road and in the community were honking for us and kind of know we’re coming and applauded,” he said. “That the community continues to welcome us back, I think that’s a pretty special thing.”

Don Clarke, director of the school’s campus ministry, owns property near the mission and completed his 28th pilgrimage with Jesuit students. In a letter to the parish, Clarke said some parents on the walk recalled making the same pilgrimage when they attended Jesuit.

A team of 15 students began planning the pilgrimage last spring.

“I really enjoyed the process, especially coming up here in the summer, camping out,” Clark said. “I feel like that was a really crucial time for planning.”

“It was a really good time to talk with our classmates,” said Hana Curran, also of Beaverton. “It was really nice because, during the school day, we don’t have as much time to do that. Just being able to walk and talk with our friends definitely made the difficult 12 miles a lot easier.”

At closing songs or at the end of chapel or events in the gym, Jesuit seniors link arms and sway back and forth as one, shoulder to shoulder, Principal Maxie said.

“It never gets old,” he said. “It’s always the same, and only the seniors do it. If you had a vision of what community is, that would be the picture of it.”

What Jesuit does with its students through retreats, services, and the pilgrimage forges unbreakable bonds. Beyond a good education, he said, their students feel loved.

In its 60th anniversary book, Jesuit High School states, “The 12-mile hike has become a marking point for many seniors as they seek to make the walk a significant moment in their high school career. It may be meeting unknown classmates for the first time, seeking reconciliation in relationships, or proving to oneself that ‘I really can walk 12 miles!’”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.