Monday, August 5, 2013

St. Mary's Mission Historic District

Jesuit priests and lay brothers founded St. Mary’s Mission—the first mission in the Northwest—in 1841. The Jesuits closed the mission in 1850, returning in 1866. For the next quarter century, they helped the Salish adapt from hunting to farming as the buffalo disappeared. The priests supported and advocated for the Salish people and provided medical services and spiritual guidance to both Indians and whites. When the U.S. government forced the impoverished Salish to leave their beloved Bitterroot Valley for the Flathead Reservation in 1891, St. Mary’s closed. An influx of homesteaders prompted the creation of St. Mary’s Parish in 1910, and the old mission church reopened. In 1911, the Salish returned to St. Mary’s for the first time since 1891 to celebrate their Bitterroot heritage. They still maintain this tradition.

A group of Salish visit St. Mary's circa 1955
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 950-754
The historic district includes the 1866 church and pharmacy, designed by the multi-talented Father Anthony Ravalli. Ravalli, also the architect of Idaho’s famed Cataldo Mission, employed log building techniques, ingeniously adapting European ecclesiastical architecture to the remote frontier. St. Mary’s historic church reflects his talents—the carpentry, paintings, and sculpture were all his handiwork.

The interior of historic St. Mary’s Mission Church shows Father Ravalli’s artistic skills
Adjacent is St. Mary’s Cemetery and Father Ravalli’s final resting place. Chief Victor’s log home and the Indian burial ground recall the Salish presence. Two gnarled apple trees provide living evidence of Jesuit agriculture. Father Ravalli planted one of the trees in 1869, and it is the oldest living apple tree in the Bitterroot Valley, where settlers later planted orchards during the Apple Boom. The tree is all that remains of Father Ravalli’s extensive garden. Salish elder Mary Ann Combs recalled her grandmother picking apples from the tree. Its aged trunk still puts forth shoots, and its buds, grafted onto rootstock, have produced numerous offspring in the Stevensville area.

This crabapple tree planted by Father Ravalli is one of two apple trees listed in the
National Register of Historic Places at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville. 
The new St. Mary’s Church, built in 1954 with donations from Montana and beyond, represents an unprecedented preservation effort to save the endangered mission church from deterioration through constant use. Today, St. Mary’s churches—old and new—define the historic complex as a place of significance to both Indian and white communities.

1 comment:

  1. So beautiful. The poor tree looks like it's ready to fall over.