St. Mary’s Mission 175th: A History of Faith in Montana

Cody Tredik:

The toll of the bell turned all eyes towards the steeple of the mission church, much the same way that it would have in the 19th century. The ring echoed across Stevensville, Mont. to signal the beginning of the festivities of the 175th commemoration of the founding of the St. Mary’s mission.

With over a year of planning and countless hours of volunteer work, the event offered an insightful look into the historic meeting between the jesuit missionaries and the Salish people who lived in the Bitterroot Valley. The founder’s day was brought together in conjunction with the Montana Historical Society History Conference, and was the final event of the three day gathering. This allowed for many presentations and demonstrations all centered on bringing the attendees back to what life looked like in the 1800’s at the mission. In addition, the event contained a special focus on celebrating the relationship between the two peoples which was created on a foundation of faith.

The mission holds a long history in our diocese, and in the state of Montana, as the first community settled and shared with the Native people. The journey of faith for the Salish tribe in the Bitterroot valley began when Iroquois trappers told stories of the “Black Robes” who introduced them to Christianity. The Salish, along with the Nez Perce, sent delegations to St. Louis, Mo., requesting to have these missionaries commissioned to live among them. What followed shaped the history of the state, and of the Church in the northwest.

Just after the ringing of the church bell, Bishop Thomas gave the benediction, followed by a presentation of flags and a traditional Salish smudging ceremony led by Steve Lozar. The long held tradition involves the burning of sweet grass, and using the smoke to cleanse and purify oneself. After the smudging, representatives from the offices of Governor Steve Bullock and Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, offered their congratulations.

Bishop Thomas presented two significant letters, one from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, and the other from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State to Pope Francis. Both gave their blessing and expressed their excitement over the importance of the celebration, and urged continued collaboration in the Bitterroot Valley.

Guglielmo Ravalli, a collateral descendent of Jesuit missionary Fr. Anthony Ravalli, also addressed the gathering. Fr. Ravalli was recruited by Fr. DeSmet in the 1840’s to serve at the St. Mary’s mission, helping build the physical church and the community. Guglielmo was born in the same town as Fr. Ravalli, Ferrara, Italy, and spoke of the honor that it was to be at the event, saying, “I’m delighted to be here, it has been a deeply touching experience to learn of the legacy left behind by Fr. Anthony.”

A dozen actors in historical attire re-enacted the meeting of the “black coats” and the Salish, and gave onlookers a glimpse of their early conversations, as well as the beginning of a relationship rooted in a desire to grow closer to God together. The script for the performance was written by local Montana author Dale Burke, owner of Stonydale Press Publishing Co. based in Stevensville.

Attendees could then choose to remain at the main stage to listen to speakers reflect on the history surrounding the mission, or explore booths and demonstrations on the grounds. The main stage presentations explored topics including an analysis of early letters between tribal leaders and the missionaries, and a ladies tea, which featured Rachel Arlee Bowers and Francie Sullivan, who shared memories of the friendship between their great grandmother and mother in the mid 1900s at the mission. The stations set up around the grounds also featured Salish drumming, information on indigenous animal and plant life, horseback riding, and demonstrations in beading and flax spinning.

In the center of the mission grounds, a new Salish encampment exhibit was introduced to better represent the Salish homelands the mission was built on. The cluster of four tipis stand just behind the mission church with a sign honoring the Bitterroot Salish people, “who called this valley home for many generations, and whose spirit will forever dwell here.”

“We felt that it was a wonderful day,” Colleen Meyer, director of the St. Mary’s mission and museum, said. “We were delighted to have Bishop Thomas with us, and it was a very delightful and emotional surprise when he brought those two letters with him. We were also glad to have great speakers, events, and exhibits, especially those enjoyed by all of the families.”

Bishop Thomas Concelebrated the closing mass with Fr. Matthew Huber, pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Stevensville, and Fr. Michael Drury, pastor of St. Anthony’s parish in Missoula.

Bishop Thomas’ homily recounted the history of the mission, and made a special note of the beautiful faith of the Iroquois people, suggesting that they were, in fact, the first missionaries in Montana.

“My theory is that it was the Iroquois Indians who first carried the gospel to Montana and propagated the faith among the Salish people, who then became the second wave of missionaries before the Black Robes arrived.”

Bishop went on to compliment the persistence of the Salish community in working to bring the gospel into their lives, calling it, “A mission, born in the hearts of the native people, that came to fruition through perseverance and prayer.”

For Meyer, who has been the museum director since 2000, the founder’s day commemorated the mission’s identity in a joyful way, as she reflected, “This was our eighth founder’s day, and it’s been a great experience building on this event for the last seven years. I believe that it creates more awareness of the mission, what we represent, and of our unique story where the native people invited the white man into their world. St. Mary’s is known as the mother of missions in the northwest, and it is a great honor to celebrate this commission with our Catholic Church.”