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Face Time: Johnston talks about church as it reaches milestone

The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle is one of Coeur d’Alene’s landmarks. Built for $46,000 at a time when U.S. manufacturing workers earned about $11 per week, the ornate brick church resulted from the vision of an early Catholic priest.

“Father Thomas Purcell was hopeful that the diocese’s main cathedral would be in Coeur d’Alene. He built accordingly – that’s the rumor, anyway,” said Don Johnston, a longtime church member.

Over the past century, the church’s beauty has inspired several generations of local Catholics. The 200-foot steeple is topped by a gold-plated cross. Inside the church, 16 stained-glass windows depict saints and scenes from Jesus’ life.

Johnston, 82, talked about the church’s history on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in the building.

Q.You were baptized in this church.

A.My early life started in Coeur d’Alene. I attended the Academy of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and my school days started with Mass (at St. Thomas). You were required to be in the pew at 8 o’clock.

Q.What’s notable about St. Thomas’ architecture?

A.The church was built by craftsmen. The brickwork is absolutely gorgeous. Look at all those arches. And the steeple, it’s amazing that they were able to build something that high back when they had to make scaffolding out of wood. I’ve worked on wood scaffolding. It’s scary.

Q.That era produced a lot of fancy churches. What was the religious context?

A.It’s a matter of what you feel toward the Almighty. In the early days, people wanted to build something they were proud to go to and they wanted to glorify God. I think Father Purcell outdid himself here.

Q.Do you remember the 1958 fire that caused $25,000 worth of damage?

A.I didn’t actually see the fire, but I saw the results. … The church had to be repainted. In my estimation, that’s when the beauty of the (plaster work) came out. Before, it was all one color. I don’t think anyone ever learned what caused the fire. It apparently started in the Christmas decorations.

Q.What’s kept the church so beautiful?

A.Did Hillary (Clinton) say, “It takes a village to raise a child?” Well, it takes a parish to take care of a church.

Bill Guimond was one of those volunteers. He kept the furnace going and did handyman work. When I was in my early teens, I was his gofer. He took me down into the basement crawl space and taught me how to oil the motor for the organ. … Before the copper eaves went in I carried five-gallon buckets up into the belfry to catch water from the leaks.

Q.What’s your favorite memory of the church?

A.There are lots of them. Midnight Mass and the times we went to Mass as children. My brother was married there; lots of my friends were married there; a couple of my kids were married there. Those were great days. And I’ve been to some awfully good funerals there, too.

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