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Monday, June 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Western Washington To Lose Last Friar, Franciscan Mission

Longview Daily News

TOLEDO, Lewis County - A community of Franciscan priests, based here at the state's oldest Roman Catholic church, once ministered to the faithful throughout Southwest Washington.

But friars are few these days. The last of the Franciscans will leave St. Francis Xavier Mission June 29, ending an era that lasted 88 years.

"We are saying, `We can no longer staff this parish,' " said the Rev. Paul Botenhagen, who has been priest at St. Francis and at Sacred Heart Church in Winlock since 1991.

Because of a shortage of priests, the Franciscans also are relinquishing one of their parishes in Spokane and another in Tigard, Ore., leaving the religious order with just two parishes in the Pacific Northwest, in Portland and Spokane.

The Franciscan community at the mission three miles north of Toledo once thrived. The Franciscans built or restored parishes from Morton to Woodland. And the Franciscan Sisters operated St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for girls near Toledo, between 1911 and 1973.

But the mission has become an isolated post over the past decade for friars such as Botenhagen, who lives alone in the rectory behind the church. He will move at the end of the month to Berkeley, Calif., and live in a house with other members of the Order of Friar Minors.

"It's important we are connected so we can share with one another and be challenged," he said.

St. Francis mission will have a farewell-to-the-Franciscans party at the end of the month. Toledo resident Joe Kaiser, who has belonged to the mission for 81 of his 85 years, said he'll be sorry to see the Franciscans go.

"I was acquainted with quite a few, and I can't say anything but a good word for them," Kaiser said.

The Franciscans, a fraternity of priests who follow certain rules and traditions based on the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the order in 1209, wear brown robes and sandals in the style of 13th-century Italian peasants and take vows of poverty. Their tradition is one of service to the world, rather than a monastic life.

St. Francis Xavier Mission already was well-established when it was turned over to the Franciscans in 1908. Father Francis Norbert Blanchet, a Jesuit, laid the groundwork for the mission when he made a canoe trip from Montreal, Canada, to the Cowlitz Prairie in 1838 to celebrate Mass for French-Canadian pioneers.

For the first half of this century, the mission had a recurring problem - the church burned down regularly. A fire in 1901 claimed the life of Father Van Holdebeke. The church also burned down in 1916 and '32.

Kaiser, a dairyman who delivered milk to the church on the day of the 1932 fire, recalled that firefighters dynamited the rear of the church to save the rectory.

In Botenhagen's place will come the Rev. Timothy Berg, a diocesan priest who will keep his current job as director of pastoral care at Providence Hospital in Centralia.

"My Sundays are going to be very busy," Berg said. "But I think it's going to work out where people won't notice a big difference."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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