St. Mary's Mission, Stevensville, Montana
The history of St. Mary's Mission begins with the arrival in the Northwest of twenty-four Iroquois Indians employed as trappers by the Hudson's Bay Company. During the 1823-24 season, twelve of these Iroquois remained among the Salish (Selis) in the Red Willow (now Bitterroot) valley. They were adopted into the tribe and married the Salish women.
The Iroquois came from a nation that had been introduced to Christianity some two hundred years earlier. When they gathered around the campfire in the evenings with the Salish the Iroquois talked about white men who wore long black gowns, carried crucifixes, did not marry and whose practice it was to instruct people, bringing them to know God and all things to enable them to live after death.
The Salish, together with their neighbors the Nez Perce, became so interested in these stories that between 1831 and 1839 they sent four delegations to St. Louis to obtain a Black Robe to live among them to teach them all these things to which the Iroquois referred.
On September 24, 1841, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, together with his fellow Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Gregory Mengarini and Nicolas Point, and three Lay Brothers arrived in the Bitterroot valley with their belongings and supplies in three carts and a wagon, the first vehicles to enter the area.
They established the first white settlement in what was to become Montana, on the east bank of the Bitterroot river, immediately west of the present town of Stevensville. The new mission, as well as the river and the tallest mountain peak to the west, were named "St. Mary's". Fifty years later the name of the river was changed to "Bitterroot" by the Forest Service.
The first chapel measured 25x33, with two galleries in order to accommodate the entire tribe. Father DeSmet made a trip to Fort Colville of the Hudson Bay Company and returned with supplies to tide them over the winter, plus wheat, oats, potatoes and garden seeds for the first crops.
The news of the Black Robes' arrival spread, and within a short time Indians from many tribes came to visit. The following year, a larger church, 30x60, was built a few hundred yards east of the river.
Following a trip to Fort Vancouver on the west coast, from where he brought into Montana the first cattle, swine and poultry, Father DeSmet returned to St. Louis. After seeing off a group of helpers to travel overland to St. Mary's, he left for Europe to seek recruits and funds for the new mission area in the Northwest.
One of his recruits was a true renaissance man, Father Anthony Ravalli, S.J. an Italian, who arrived at St Mary's in November 1845. In addition to being a Jesuit priest, he was Montana's first physician, surgeon and pharmacist. He was an architect, an artist and sculptor. He built the first grist mill and saw mill.
Religion classes were held twice a day. There were classes in reading, writing and arithmetic taught in the Salish language. There was a band that played numbers by German and Italian composers. The Indians were taught to plow, plant, cultivate, irrigate and harvest crops and to tend cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry.
A larger church was under construction in 1846. Before it's completion, problems with the Salish's traditional enemies, the Blackfoot, forced what was intended to be a temporary closure of the Mission.
By terms of a Conditional Bill of Sale in November 1850, John Owen, a former army sutler, bought the improvements for $250.00. Should the Jesuits return within two years the mills and fields would revert to them. When they were unable to return by the designated time, the Jesuits sent word to burn the church to save it from desecration. The former mission site became Fort Owen, a trading post.
It was sixteen years later (1866) when Father Joseph Giorda, Superior for the Rocky Mountain area, called back Father Ravalli and Brother William Claessens and re-established St. Mary's Mission about a mile south of Fort Owen.
St. Mary's Mission. You can see where the addition was added to chapel at the front
St. Mary's Mission about 1879. You can see where the addition was added to the chapel at the front and the additions and barn at the back
Brother Claessens built a little chapel, the fourth he had built for St. Mary's, to which he attached a study, dining room, kitchen and a story and a half barn. Father Giorda made the "new" St. Mary's the Jesuit mission headquarters for the Rocky Mountain province.
In 1879 an addition to the front of the building doubled the size of the chapel. The entire Mission complex has been restored to that date - the peak of its beauty.
Very little interior was available to see when I visited in July 1997. For the second time on this trip - I had a tour guide all to myself. She was about 70 and had a real knowledge of the local history which she related while showing me the buildings. All of the interior and some exterior pictures here came from their website.
St. Mary's Mission 1997, Stevensville, Montana
Old St. Mary's stands as a monument to those heroic sons of the mountains, through whose efforts the first trail into Montana was blazed with the Cross, and to those dedicated Jesuits who were the pioneers of Montana's pioneers.
Today the mission complex includes the restored chapel/residence, Father Ravalli's log house/pharmacy and Chief Victor's cabin (now a Salish museum).
DeSmet park offers picnic facilities and a replica of a Salish encampment, the cemetery where Father Ravalli is buried and the Indian burial plot.
Replica of the first two-wheeled carts
A Visitor's Center was added in 1996 and houses a gift shop as well as a research library, art gallery and museum that features some of Father Ravalli's hand tools and farm equipment as well as historical documents and photographs.
There is a diorama depicting Chief Big Face, Fr. DeSmet and Chief Victor and recently added is a replica of the first two-wheeled carts. The carts carried belongings and supplies for the first group of Jesuits as they were escorted by the Indians to the Bitter Root Valley in 1841.
The rough exterior of the Chapel belies the beauty within. Fashioned after an Italian cathedral by Fr. Ravalli, most of the woodwork and statues were made by him. The attached buildings consist of a quarters for the Fr. Superior, a kitchen and dining room.
Father Ravalli designed the Chapel to be reminiscent of a beautiful Italian Cathedral
Ceiling and original light fixture. The light fixture was found on the grounds during restoration and repaired by a blacksmith
The Chapel Alter showcases much of Fr. Ravalli's work
1997 Diorama. This has been replaced by a new diorama due to deteriation of the statues