The St. Ignatius Mission Church is a marvel, inside and out.
Travelers on U.S. 93 know it as the landmark red brick church that appears after their breath is taken away by the stunning view of the Mission Mountains as they’re heading north and top Ravalli Hill before dropping down into the Mission Valley.
Inside the 1891 structure, 58 murals painted in the early 1900s by a mission cook with no formal art training adorn the walls and ceiling, depicting scenes from the Bible’s Old and New Testaments and some of the saints.
The Roman Catholic church is the centerpiece of what remains of the St. Ignatius Mission that was founded in 1854 by Jesuit missionaries and named for their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola.
“We preceded the town,” said the Rev. C. Hightower, the energetic young priest who arrived about a year ago after working for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Erbil, Iraq, where he coordinated education for children in refugee camps.
“Visitors from all over the world are blown away by the beauty,” Hightower said.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Mission Church is open for self-guided tours and is a popular stop for tourists.
But it’s an equally treasured part of the St. Ignatius community.
“It’s more than our faith,” said lifelong church member Terry Orr. “It’s our faith, it’s family, it’s community.”
Both Orr and her husband David’s families go back several generations in St. Ignatius.
“My husband’s family helped build the church,” Terry Orr said. Her family, the Cordiers, also have been integrally involved with the church. She recalled how her grandmother, Pearl Cordier, “worked for the fathers, cooking and cleaning,” and how her uncle Sam helped build the church basement and rectory alongside many other families.
Hightower said it’s that kind of dedication that keeps the church going.
“We get wonderful community support,” he said.
There’s a fundraising effort underway to raise about $700,000 to $1 million to restore the murals, also known as frescoes, which have started to crack and deteriorate from age and earthquake damage. Cheesecloth has been applied to several of the cracked paintings to prevent further damage.
“We’ve had a couple bids from professional restorers,” Hightower said.
The murals are an extraordinary collection, painted by Brother Joseph Carignano, an Italian Jesuit who spent many years as the cook and handyman at the mission. In between his regular jobs he completed the artwork in 1904 and 1905.
The church was a collaborative project from the beginning. Missionaries and American Indians built the church over a two-year span from bricks fired at a local mill. For the first six years the church had no windows, Hightower said.
St. Ignatius Mission was founded in 1854, but its history goes back much further, according to mission archives. In the spring of 1831 a delegation of four Flathead Indians headed to St. Louis in a quest to draw missionaries — “Blackrobes” — to Montana for their people. The language barrier and eventual death of all four men squelched the initial effort, and it would take four attempts to finally forge an agreement to bring a Jesuit priest to work among the Flathead Indians.
By 1864 the Jesuit community at St. Ignatius was joined by the first Catholic nuns to arrive in Montana to open a girls boarding school and hospital, according to history compiled by the Rev. Joseph Obersinner and Judy Gritzmacher for a brochure about the mission.
In 1895, during the mission’s “golden age,” it included an earlier church building, a Jesuit residence that later was given to the Ursuline sisters, an industrial arts school, a Jesuit residence and seminary, which later became a boys residence and school, and the current Mission church.
What’s left today is the brick church, an 1854 log cabin that housed the first missionaries, which now serves as a museum, and the 1864 residence of the Providence sisters.
The land where some of the mission buildings stood is now Taelman Park, named after the Rev. Louis Taelman, a well-known and respected Jesuit priest who worked among the Indian people of the St. Ignatius area.
At one time a large orchard of fruit trees stood east of the church. It was a prime attraction for bears, hence the street name today: Bear Trap Avenue.
The mission is not without blemishes on its past. A few of the roughly 500 people, mostly American Indian or Alaskan natives, who claimed sexual abuse by Jesuit priests and nuns starting in the 1950s lived at the St. Ignatius Mission. In 2011 those claimants prevailed in a $166 million bankruptcy reorganization against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, also known as Jesuits.
Though it was the Jesuit Society that was involved with the lawsuit, the impact of those accusations nevertheless was felt by the St. Ignatius Mission Church.
“We’re still digging out from that a little bit,” longtime church member Fred Gariepy said. “We’re pretty well past that, but it will take many, many years to diminish, if it ever does.”
History lives on at St. Ignatius Mission Church. The registers of all the funerals and burials are archived there, a great resource for genealogists, Hightower said.
“We have wedding records back to 1848. We get a lot of calls from people researching their ancestry,” he said.
People still get married at the Mission Church. Hightower estimated that the church hosts about 15 or so wedding ceremonies a year, though “there are far more funerals,” he added.
The Salish culture has a prominent place in the church. A 1957 painting by Sam and Olive Wiprud depicts Christ as an Indian chief; another painting by Sam Wiprud shows an Indian Madonna.
Near the front of the church, a small tepee on a shelf is another symbol of the area’s Indian culture.
“Christ came to rest within people’s homes, so that’s why we have the tepee,” Hightower said.
The Mission Church congregation has about 500 to 600 members, with an average Sunday Mass attendance of about 200 people.
Today St. Ignatius Mission consists of three church communities: the Mission Church, Sacred Heart Mission in Arlee, and John Berchmans in Jocko.
On this Easter Sunday, the congregation is gathered for Easter Mass, just as it has for 125 years, in the shadow of the magnificent Mission Mountains named for the mission those Jesuit priests established so long ago.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.