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Montana's St. Mary's Mission

Montana's birthplace: the Jesuit mission in Stevensville.

St. Mary's Mission in Stevensville, Mont.
Photo caption
Montana's birthplace: the Jesuit mission in Stevensville.


Wherever you look in Historic St. Mary's Mission chapel you see the ingenious artistry of Jesuit priest Antonio Ravalli. Completed in 1879, the Stevensville, Mont., chapel stands amid a complex of restored buildings representing the state's oldest permanently settled community, founded in the Bitterroot Valley in 1841 to bring Christianity to the region's Native American people.

Father Ravalli, born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1812, decorated the small church in classic Renaissance style. Neophytes concocted the pigments: red from vermilion clay, yellow from minerals found in an eastern Montana cave, blue from indigo traded among tribes. Ravalli used a hand lathe to turn the altar railing, urns, candlesticks, and baptismal font, and painted the stations of the cross on burlap. From local wood he sculpted a figurine of the Virgin Mary. The industrious priest also built a statue of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, by draping a cassock of tar-blackened canvas over an iron armature and carving the icon's lifelike face and hands out of wood.

All of Father Ravalli's works have been preserved except the paintings on burlap. The mission will hold its annual holiday open house on Dec. 5 this year. (406) 777-5734,

Photography by Chuck Haney


This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.