Pierre DeSmet

The Beginning of Catholicism in Montana

The Catholic faith came to Montana through a band of Iroquois Indians who had been instructed and baptized by Father Isaac Jogues.  Arriving in the early 19th century in what is now known as the Bitterroot Valley, they were well received by the Flathead tribe.  The Iroquois intermarried and became members of the Flatheads, sharing their Catholic faith in a way that prompted the Flatheads to send several delegations to St. Louis asking for a “blackrobe” to come and minister to them.  Finally, the third group was successful in reaching St. Louis where Bishop Rosati promised to send Father DeSmet to them.   

On June 30, 1840 Father DeSmet, SJ was met by 1,600 Indians at Green River, Wyoming to accompany him as he journeyed toward the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.  Father DeSmet celebrated the first Mass in what is now Montana on July 26, 1840 near what is known today as Three Forks.  When he saw the zeal of the Flatheads and the need for missionaries, Father DeSmet returned to St. Louis and brought back two other priests and two Jesuit lay missionaries.   

On September 24, 1841 the missionaries arrived in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, the home of the Flatheads, about 50 miles south of Missoula.  Over the next half century several missions were established: St. Mary’s for the Flatheads in 1841, St. Xavier among the Crows south of Billings, St. Ignatius, founded in 1846 by Father DeSmet, St. Peter, south of Great Falls, for the Blackfeet in 1858, St. Labre’ in 1885, south of Miles City to serve the Cheyenne’s, St. Paul’s Mission south of Chinook for the Gros Ventres and Assinaboines in1886, Holy Family Mission in 1886 for the Blackfeet, and the Fort Peck Indian school in 1907 for the Northern Sioux. 

The Coming of White Settlers after 1850

In the 1850’s the rumor of gold brought many whites to the West.  As the wagon trains traveled toward the Pacific coast, some of the prospectors, hunters, and traders passed through the territory of Montana and chose to settle there.  However, in 1862, when gold was discovered both in Deer Lodge and Beaverhead Counties, many more whites arrived.  As the white people began to settle they found that the Jesuit missionaries and the seeds of the Catholic faith had already preceded them.

Two Apostolic Vicariates Established in 1866

In 1864 Montana, as it is today, was made a territory by an act of Congress and in 1866 the second Plenary Council of Baltimore petitioned Rome for the erection of two apostolic vicariates.  This was granted and the Vicariate of Idaho included the western portion of Montana and the eastern part of the state became the Vicariate of Montana.  To preside over the new vicariates, the Holy See appointed the Very Rev. A. Ravoux of St Paul to Montana and the very Rev. L. Lootens of San Francisco to Idaho.  Father Lootens presided over his Vicariate until 1875.   Father Ravoux asked to be released from his duties because of ill health.  No new appointments were made to fill the vacancies; instead, the two vicariates were administered from elsewhere.  Bishop O’Connor, Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska, visited the Vicariate of Montana in 1877, administering Confirmation at Virginia City, Helena, Fort Shaw, and all the Jesuit missions.  Archbishop Seghers of Oregon City, made the first pastoral visitation of Western Montana in 1879, visiting the different settlements and camps, and looked into the needs of this part of his vast charge.  When in Rome in 1882 he petitioned the Holy See to unite the Territory of Montana under one ecclesiastical jurisdiction. 

Single Vicariate of Montana Formed

In 1883, the Holy See erected the Vicariate of Montana, consisting of the entire territory and appointed Most Rev. John Baptist Brondel as its bishop.

The Arrival of More Priests and Lay Brothers

The first priests and lay brothers to work in Montana were Jesuits.  These men undertook a primitive form of life to bring the Catholic faith, first to the Indians and then to the first white settlers.  Other religious Orders and priests soon followed.  In 1897 when the Jesuits left St. Labre Mission the priests of the diocese took over until Bishop Lenihan asked the Society of St. Edmond to staff St. Labre and the parish in 1914.  In 1926 the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin, came to St. Labre. 

Other Religious Orders of men who were invited by Bishop Lenihan were Benedictines from Germany, who came to serve the Indians in Poplar in 1913, the Order of Premonstratensions (Norbertines) who came in 1921 to take over the Hingham parish, the Redemptorists to open St. Gerard Parish in Great Falls, and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who came to serve at Little Flower and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Billings in 1954.

 Religious Women Arrive

Soon after the religious orders of men began their ministries, there were pioneer sisters who followed.  At the request of Rev. J. Giorda, S.J. and the Rev. U. Grassi, S.J. the Providence sisters left Montreal, Canada in October, 1864 to open an Indian boarding school at St. Ignatius Mission.  Around the same time Father DeSmet requested that the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth send sisters to help in western Montana.  Five sisters arrived in the fall of 1869.  Six Ursuline sisters came to eastern Montana in 1884 at the request of Bishop Brondel to open a school at St. Labre Mission and among the Cheyenne Indians south of Miles City.

When the Most Rev. Mathias Lenihan came to Great Falls in 1904 he found no Catholic school in the see city of the diocese.  He wrote to the Superior General of the Sisters of Humility in Ottumwa, Iowa, asking for sisters. The first group of three Sisters of Humility arrived in Great Falls on December 7, 1906 to staff St. Mary School.  The school occupied the first floor of an abandoned hotel on 8th Ave North and 15th Street, where the sisters lived on an upper floor.  At the end of the first year 109 students were enrolled

The First Priest Ordained for the Diocese in 1886

The first priest ordained for the Diocese of Great Falls was the Rev. Cyril Pauwelyn, a native of Louvain, Belgium.  Bishop Brondel ordained him in Sacred Heart Cathedral, Helena on November 29, 1885.  After his ordination he was put in charge of all the white population outside of Helena, east of the Rocky Mountains to the Dakota line.  Father Pauwelyn visited at various times the main cities in Eastern Montana, which in 1886 had a Catholic population of less than 2,000. 

The Vicariate of Montana Split into two Dioceses in 1903

In 1903, under Bishop Brondel, the Vicariate of Montana was split into two dioceses.   Western Montana became the Diocese of Helena and Eastern Montana became the Diocese of Great Falls.    In this division the Diocese of Great Falls covers 91,403 square miles.


Diocese Renamed in 1980

On February 14, 1980 Bishop Thomas Joseph Murphy received permission from Rome to re-name the Diocese of Great Falls to the Diocese of Great Falls-BillingsThe announcement to the people of the diocese was published on March 26, 1980.

Bishops from 1883 to the Present

Bishop John Baptist Brondel, born in West Flanders, Belgium in 1842 and ordained to the priesthood on December 17, 1864, was first appointed as administrator of Montana on April 7, 1882.  He was consecrated bishop on March 7, 1884.  The Vicariate of Montana was split into two dioceses in 1903.  Bishop Brondel died on November 3, 1903. 

Bishop Mathias Clement Lenihan, born October 6, 1854, and ordained to the priesthood on December 20, 1879, was consecrated as the first bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls on September 21, 1904.  He was installed on November 5, 1904 at St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls and resigned as bishop on January 18, 1930.  Bishop Lenihan died in Dubuque, Iowa on August 19, 1943. 

Bishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara, born on September 6, 1881, was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1905.  He was consecrated the second bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls and installed on November 5, 1930 at St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls.  He was named Archbishop of the Diocese of Kansas City on April 15, 1939.  Bishop O’Hara died on September 11, 1956 in Milan, Italy and was buried in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Bishop William Joseph Condon, born on April 7, 1895, was ordained to the priesthood on October 14, 1917 and became the third bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls.  He was installed on October 26th, 1939 in St. Ann Cathedral, Great Falls.  Having died on August 17, 1967, he was the first bishop buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Great Falls

Bishop Eldon Bernard Mathias Schuster, born on March 10, 1911, was ordained to the priesthood on May 27, 1937 and consecrated as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls on December 21, 1961 at St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls.  On December 2, 1967, Bishop Schuster was appointed the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls and installed on January 23, 1968 in St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls.  Dying on September 4, 1998, he was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Great Falls. 

Bishop Thomas Joseph Murphy, born on October 3, 1932, was ordained to the priesthood on April 12, 1958.  Named fifth bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls on July 5th, he was installed at McLaughlin Center, Great Falls on August 21, 1978.  Bishop Murphy was named Co-adjutor Bishop of Seattle, Washington on May 26, 1987 and succeeded to the See on August 21, 1991.  He died on June 26, 1997 in Seattle and was buried there. 

Bishop Anthony Michael Milone, born on September 24, 1932, was ordained to the priesthood on December 15, 1957.  His Episcopal ordination as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska took place on November 11, 1981.  He was appointed sixth bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings on December 14, 1987 and was installed on February 23, 1988 at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Great Falls.  Bishop Milone retired in 2007, just before reaching the required age, because of health complications. He returned to Omaha in June 2007.

The Growth of the Diocese

At the time of Bishop Lenihan’s installation as the first bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls in 1904, there were 17 priests, 11 diocesan and 6 religious.  Ten parishes, four Indian missions, and 5 Catholic schools comprised the diocese.  By 1930 these figures had grown to 59 priests, 45 diocesan and 14 religious.  There were 32 parishes, 6 hospitals, 12 schools, and two miscellaneous additions: Sacred Heart Convent and Motherhouse for the Sisters of Humility and St. Thomas Orphan Home, operated by the Sisters of Providence.   

At the time of Bishop Milone’s installation as Bishop of Great Falls-Billings in 1988 the figures had grown to 86 diocesan priests, 26 religious order priests, 6 externs, 2 transitional deacons, 3 permanent deacons, 5 brothers and 149 sisters.  There were 66 parishes and 58 missions.  41 parishes had resident diocesan priests, 15 had resident religious priests, 24 were administered by a priest, 3 administered by women religious, and 2 by lay people.  In the diocese were also 14 diocesan and parochial schools, two hospitals, the University of Great Falls, Heisey Youth Center, Ursuline Retreat Centre, St. Thomas Center, and Newman Center and the Monastery of St. Clare 

In 2006, Bishop Milone retired and returned to the Omaha Diocese. The Very Rev. Jay Peterson is the elected Administrator of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings as we await the appointment of a new bishop. There are 65 parishes, 45 missions, and 8 chapels of occasional worship.  To minister in the diocese there are now 68 priests, 2 recently ordained, 13 of them from religious orders and 27 of them retired. There are five pastoral administrators, four of whom are deacons and one a woman religious, who minister in the parishes. In addition, 71 Women Religious assist in the mission of the Church in eastern Montana. Four men are in the seminary preparing for priesthood for the diocese.