26 April 2010

Visiting the Ruins of North Montana’s Oldest Mission St. Peter’s

Visiting the Ruins of North Montana’s Oldest Mission St. Peter’s. Erected Before Great Falls Had Been Thought Of. Log to St. Peter’s [40 miles]

The log may not be exactly right as to mileage, as the gear pin was out for a time during the logging from Cascade to St. Peter’s, but the figures are not more than half a mile or so off, there is but one road and there is but one St. Peter’s, which lies at the foot of Sullivan hill.

A trip to St. Peter’s Mission from Great Falls is something worth while and St. Peter’s is by far the oldest thing in shape of a mission in northern Montana--and its little old frame church is the oldest church in all of northern Montana.

The church alone is worth the trip, as it is quaint to the nth degree, as quaint things go in Montana. It was in this church that Henry Plummer, first Montana sheriff and chief of the road agents of the territory, hung in Virginia City by the Vigilantes some 60 years ago, was married to the first young school teacher who ever taught in the Sun River section. It was quite an event and one can think the old old church was a doomed cathedral to the young school teacher and the young road agent as they walked up the isle in the long, long ago.

The church was elaborate in its day, with a sort of a windmill-effect steeple, apart from the church, in which hangs the bell, the same being pulled by a rope to summon to prayers. The altar and the benches stand as they stood more than half a century ago, and the same floor answers. The place is old, almost tottering, the bell is cracked, the bell steeple shaky, and the church looks like an old abandoned homesteader’s shack of the better class. But inside, the floor, the walls, the seats, and all the surroundings, shine from repeated scrubbing, and everything is painfully neat. It is in use evidently, and its door swings open to the world, although there is no priest or padre to welcome, the services being at times and not as in the old days of the first church of northern Montana.

St. Peter’s was the first mission established by the Jesuits east of the Rockies in what is now Montana, was started on four sites, abandoned for eight years, and at one time was the leading academy for young girls in all Montana; at one time it housed 400 little Indian pupils being taught education and the Catholic faith, and it came into existence at direct request of the Indians, who invited Catholicism to come to them.

Once St. Peter’s mission had its site on the Missouri river near to where Great Falls now stands, in the Big Bend, and near to the sign board of Swift on the Great Northern; another site the gate of the Mountains above Cascade was chosen, until the final location was made at where the ruins of the old mission now rest.

For it is a place of ruins, having been given up several years since as a place of education because of fire having swept some of the large buildings. And then St. Peter’s, while once quite the thing, found competition in the cities growing up about the state for girl pupils--and the Blackfeet Indian reservation, which once reached down to near Cascade, was moved far north, and the red pupils were taken with it.

The founding of the mission, as it comes from the musty records, is of interest. The first Montana mission was that of St. Mary’s on the Bitter Root river, near Missoula, founded in 1841, or thereabouts.

The Blackfeet asked that a mission be established in their country so that the rites of the church might be given them, and in 1858 Major Vaughn, agent of the Blackfeet, forwarded a petition asking that a ‘blackrobe’ be sent them. Father A. Hoecken and Brother Magri were assigned in April, 1859, and located a mission on the Teton river near where Choteau now is located, immediately north of Priest’s butte. And this, by the way, is the reason for the name of the butte in question. March 13, 1860, the mission was moved to Sun river, where Fort Shaw now stands, and a couple of cabins erected.

In the spring of 1862, Father Imoda, Father Gieorda and Brother Francis DeKock and Lucian D’Agnostina located St. Peter’s mission six miles above the mouth of Sun river, above where is now Great Falls.

Log cabins were erected, and in 1864 Father Anthony Ravalli, the famous missionary father after whom Ravalli county is named, was located at St. Peter’s, as well as Father F. X. Kuppens, also a famous figure in Montana’s history in the building. In 1865 occurred the famous Sun river stampede, in which many men were frozen, some died and many more would have passed on but for the ministrations of Father Ravalli and his associates at St. Peter’s mission, within sight of the present city of Great Falls. In the winter of 1865 the present site of St. Peter’s mission was selected. In the winter of 1865-66 Father Imoda established camp at the new place and with the assistance of another priest and a number of Indians prepared logs, stone and all the necessary materials. According to a record left by Father Kuppens, they had plans that included all the different departments for chapel and community life; for school and industrial training. Lumber was hauled from Helena. During the winter, the work was never interrupted and the houses were virtually ready in the spring. On April 27, 1866, they abandoned St. Peter’s mission on the Missouri; on the same day they opened the new St. Peter’s mission. the next day they closed that mission temporarily.

It is probable that the mission was closed because of war being carried on by the Blackfeet, who were trying to exterminate the white brethern at that time quite industriously. The mission was attached to the mission of Helena, and from 1866 to 1874 the mission and all its belongings were in care of Thomas Moran, well known in Great Falls. Services were held in the little church right along, however, by traveling priests, and the bell, then not cracked, was rung regularly to call the faithful to worship.

In 1874, the mission was re-opened, and prospered for many years. There were the usual agricultural and stockraising activities to supplement the industrial school for Indian boys. By 1880, the Ursuline nuns were induced to come there and establish a school for Indian and half-breed girls. Within 10 years, St. Peters had accommodations for 400 children. the buildings were substantial, being of stone, and the school facilities were numbered among the best in the west.

However, the mission had one great handicap. The rapid settling of the region by the whites had caused the government to restrict the territory of the Blackfeet and, as a consequence, the Indians were now placed on a reservation some 100 miles to the north of the mission. So finally, a new mission nearer the Indians had to be established. At first this new dependency was located at Birch creek on the outskirts of the reservation. In 1885, it was moved to a more central location on Two Medicine creek.

White girls were taken to school and for a time St. Peters flourished. But fire followed fire, the Indian pupils were gone, the white pupils became fewer and fewer, and at last only was left the ruins of the once great St. Peter’s mission, crumbling beside the highway from Great Falls to Helena.

The land on which the mission ruins stand, and some 4,000 acres besides, is property of the Ursuline nuns of Great Falls, the same which established the Ursuline academy here a number of years ago, and is leased, the Ursulines receiving one-half of the product in vegetables, hay or stock.

It is an interesting place to visit, in the shadow of the great mountains, with little St. Peter’s creek tumbling through the ruins, chuckling of the days agone and of the history made since the gentle Father Imoda laid the first stone for foundation of a place wherein to teach the gospel of the man of Galilee.

It is a pleasant place to visit, well worth the visit, but don’t leave without seeing the little cemetery perched on the little knoll above the ruins, or your visit will miss much of its worth. In the cemetery lies the mortal remains of men and women who wrote history in Montana in the days when the writing was often done at the expense of life and all that one holds dear. There lie the remains of ‘Whiskey’ Brown, Jim O’Farrell and scores of mighty men and women of the old times who builded better than they knew, checked in at last, and passed on to make way for a newer and greater order of things--made possible through their having lived.

In the peaceful little churchyard of St. Peter’s with the mountains and the skies looking down, they sleep well, those men who dared, life’s fitful fever o’er!” [GFLD 10 Sep 1927, p. 7]