It was in 1823 when the Spanish Franciscan Padre Jose’ Altimira, and Don Francisco Sanchez, journeyed through the northern most Mexican territory of “Alta California”. They created a journal for their exploration of the Napa Valley, traveling in search of a warmer more beautiful and healthful place for persons with pulmonary diseases. The Friar, spread mustard seeds as he journeyed through the Valley; it was the same thing that his predecessor, Padre Junipero Serra, leader of the Spaniard missions had done in his travels. Seeing the eruption of the golden hues created paths that served as a means to trace their returning routes of their travels.
In 1849 General Vallejo insisted that Napa be included as one of California’s original 27 counties. The population was mostly Native American, but growth by immigrants from parts of Europe soon changed the census. In 1859 the first resident pastor arrived in the town of Napa, Fr. Peter Deyaert. He traveled throughout Napa and Sonoma to help people in the faith spending his personal inheritance to help build churches and schools.
St. Helena Catholic Church was founded in1866 with a modest building provided by Fr. Dayeart with his remodeling the home of a Mr. Sheehan on property donated by Mr. Augustus Tainter. In 1877 the church building was sold to the Episcopalian congregation, and moved to their lot also donated by Mr. Tainter situated on Oak and Spring streets. That same little remodeled home/church was purchased by a Mrs. Taylor who moved it to Main and Adams where it became a tailor shop then Hanks Bar. The second church “St. Helena Mission” had a half pitched roof and no steeple and was gothic in style. The dedication was held on September 29, 1878 by Archbishop Riordan. A second dedication was took place at a later date for the Italian-speaking members of the parish community.
In January of 1888, Fr. Renatus Becker arrived as the new pastor. However, tragedy struck in late October of that same year; fire burned the wooden Oak Street structure to the ground. Fr. Becker designed and had built a new stone church in a classic English medieval style that stands today. During construction Mass was held in the basement of the rectory and later Catholic services were held at the Episcopal Church—a reflection of the St. Helena faith community’s hospitality and fraternity that remains to this day.
Our heritage in this sacred Valley includes those who were Native Americans, later Spaniards and Mexicans, then settlers, including Irish, Portuguese, Italian, Scottish-English, and French. Later-arriving immigrants who claimed their faith home at St. Helena included Dutch, German, and Polish members, along with the more recent arrival of Filipino families to our area. The tradition of being a faith beacon of hope to newly arrived Catholic families has continued, with significant recent growth occurring of Hispanic immigrants, ironically mostly from Mexico, as well as from parts of Central and South America, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
Of the many faces of God in the people of our community finding unity a faith-family with which to worship. We celebrate all of those who have contributed to our history, and the many blessings of our community—generation upon generation of families that have come to St. Helena’s, sharing their gifts from God. We rejoice in thanksgiving for our heritage, for we are proud to be Catholic, and proud to be a part of a presence in Napa Valley’s beautiful St. Helena since 1866.