Built to minister to Catholic miners during the California gold rush, the Sawyers Bar Church in Klamath National Forest is the oldest of its kind.
During the gold rush, almost half a million went West across the frontier with hopes of striking it rich in California, creating a vast need for ministry to Catholic miners.
In 1853, Benedictine monk Father Florian Schwenninger came to the mining town of Sawyers Bar in northern California to serve the spiritual needs of locals. In 1855 he persuaded them to construct a church with a graveyard along the North Fork of the Salmon river.
In 1857 the first Mass was celebrated, and Father Schwenninger quickly endeared himself to the miners, becoming known as the “Padre of Paradise Flat,” the name for the surrounding area. So fiercely was he loved that 40 years later when a mining company offered to move the church and graveyard to hydraulically blast the land, locals threatened to lynch the first man to begin excavation on the church grounds.
The graveyard, situated to the north/northeast of the church, was first employed in 1850 and continued to have family burials till 1974. The original wooden grave slabs were hand carved by Father Schwenninger himself, however today most were stolen by vandals and the rest remain in disrepair inside the church itself.
In 1948 Gold rush historian and Jesuit Henry L. Walsh said:
“I have come to the conclusion that this modest little house of worship that still graces the heights of Paradise Flat is the most valuable relic still left to us of the pioneer missionary era of the Catholic Church in Northern California. It is the oldest in point of time and retains more of its original form than any of the former century.”
In 1975, Curator of the Siskiyou County Museum Christine Sellman said:
“This church has served the area since its construction, and is the oldest
standing Catholic Church in Superior California. The church still serves the
entire community—both Catholic and Protestant—as services are held at regular
intervals, even though there is no resident pastor. St. Joseph’s Church is important to the historic record as it is one of the few remaining examples of rural 1850’s California architecture. It is also a direct link to the past as it is still a living facility, in use for the past 120 years. The majority of similar buildings have either been destroyed by fire, time or other natural elements, or have been abandoned to the past. The Sawyers Bar Church among the oldest remaining public structures in the vicinity,
It has withstood the destructive forces of hydraulic mining and local fires, and is in little danger of being a victim of urban development. It is one excellent example of an important facet of life in Gold Rush California.”
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, today the Sawyer’s Bar Catholic Church, also known as the Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, is a mission church of Sacred Heart Parish in the city of Fort Jones under the Diocese of Sacramento.