Church of the Good Shepherd, Boise, Idaho, USA
Gloria Totoricagüena Egurrola

Catholicism has historically served as an influential aspect in Basque diasporic culture. In the Boise Basque community today, contemporary Basque identity is less intertwined with religion, and many Boise Basques interviewed mentioned they do not attend mass regularly. Others mentioned they attend the Basque Saint Ignatius mass because it celebrated in the Basque language, euskera, or others stated they "go to listen to the Biotzetik Basque choir but I don't really care about the religious meaning of the mass." After the 2001 Catholic celebration, several participants agreed, "It's such a beautiful mass. It's like going to a theatre performance. But honestly the religious part is not so important to me." However, in the United States surveys of Basque communities, when asked if "continuing Catholic beliefs and traditions" was of great importance, 83% agreed that the "Catholic religion is consequential to Basque culture", and only eight percent responded that Catholicism is not of any importance. This has been evident in Boise Basque ethnic celebrations such as Aberri Eguna, Santa Agueda, San Ignacio, and Omenaldia (Day of Remembrance), which all have a Catholic mass component to the festival and have been well-attended. The Boise mass for the annual Saint Ignatius feast day is standing room only and for the Jaialdi 1995 and 2000 masses, hundreds of Basques were turned away from a brimming Saint John's Cathedral.

Church of the Good Shepherd

Church of the Good Shepherd, dedicated in 1919.

Basques have been instrumental in supporting and building Catholic churches in several communities in the United States, but the Church of the Good Shepherd in Boise was the only one built with the intent to be a Basque parish with a Basque priest for a Basque congregation. In the early 1900s, there was a substantial fluid young single male population of sheepherders who tended to be fixated on making as much money as possible, and it was the already established Basque families that were responsible for the Good Shepherd parish accomplishment. The sheepherder population certainly did not demand it. According to Father Ramon Echevarria, "They did not go to church. Sometimes masses were taken to the mountains, but when in town, young men did not go to church."

In 1910 the Bishop of Boise, Alphonse Glorieux, communicated a need and desire for a priest to serve the Basque speaking population of southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Bishop of Araba, in the Basque Country, responded by sending Father Bernardo Arregui to the American West. Father Arregui was born in 1866 in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, ordained in 1889 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, and served his parish in Irura, Gipuzkoa until 1911. During his studies, he learned to speak French and English (in addition to his Spanish and Basque) and even lived in London for six months during 1899. He arrived in Boise, Idaho on July 11, 1911 and administered to Basque Catholics across southern Idaho, west to Jordan Valley, Oregon, and south to McDermitt, Nevada. He conducted marriages, baptisms and confirmations, administered last rites, and celebrated funeral masses. Photographs at burial sites were often taken in order to mail the Basque Country relatives proof that their loved one had indeed received a Christian burial.

Bernardo Arregui in 1911

In 1916, Spanish King Alfonso XIII conferred upon Father Arregui the title of Vice Counsel of Spain to the United States, and he performed these responsibilities in addition to his religious duties. Father Arregui then became the pastor of the new Church of the Good Shepherd Basque parish in 1918, the only Basque church in United States history. Two buildings were purchased on the corner of Fifth and Idaho Streets, one to be converted to a church, and the other to function as the pastor's private home. The Church of the Good Shepherd was built with the financial contributions of many Basques, including substantial donations from John B. and Bene Archabal, and was completed and dedicated on March 2, 1919. Bishop Daniel M. Gorman blessed it. The church sat about 100 worshippers and held daily masses, mostly attended by Basques.

Basques celebrated their baptisms, weddings, and funerals at the Church of the Good Shepherd. There were Basques that never went to mass because they no longer had to worry about any village priest's ridicule. No one cared if they went to mass or not. Most Basque men were anti-clerical and many spoke negatively about the nuns and the priests. Many Basque girls attended St. Teresa's Catholic school, and boys started at St. Joseph's. In later years, Basques left for the public schools, though still to this day, Basque children make up a disproportionate number of the student body at St. Joseph's, St. Mark's, St. Mary's, Sacred Heart, and Bishop Kelly High School.

Fr. Arregui first communion group.

A new leader, Bishop Edward Kelly, closed the Basque Church of the Good Shepherd in 1928 with the goal of encouraging a unified United States Catholic Church and putting an end to separate ethnic parishes. Father Ramon Echevarria remembers hearing that many Basques were angry when the Church of the Good Shepherd was closed without any consultation- after they had paid for it themselves. Many Basques saw this as another example of totalitarian control and authoritarianism in the Catholic hierarchy. Basques from that era were still complaining to him about this incident in 1978 when he was transferred out of Boise. The Church of the Good Shepherd building became Bishop Kelly's private chapel and most Basques living downtown began attending the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, just a few blocks away.

Bibliography of sources

  • Totoricagüena, Gloria. Comparing the Basque Diaspora. Reno: University of Nevada Press. Forthcoming 2003.
  • Totoricagüena, Gloria. Boise Basques: Dreamers and Doers. Serie URAZANDI. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Eusko Jaurlaritza. Forthcoming 2003.

Gloria Totoricagüena Egurrola
Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada Reno.

Euskonews & Media 190. zbk (2002 / 11-29 / 12-6)

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