The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings comprises the eastern two-thirds of the State of Montana and includes churches, missions, and chapels of occasional worship from Gardiner to Plentywood and from Fort Shaw to Wibaux.
Diocesan Mission Statement
“We, the people of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, from diverse backgrounds yet guided by the same Spirit, are working together in Eastern Montana to forge new dimensions in our church. The sacred richness of our land and people shapes us. Rooted in the Eucharist and Catholic Tradition, we are living witnesses who struggle to embody the values of Christ’s reign. We commit ourselves to discover and make known God’s presence in our world by living the Gospel joyfully, working for justice and peace, and continuing our spiritual growth through a lifetime.”
A History of the Diocese
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 Crow 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, St. Paul’s Mission south of Chinook for the Gros Ventre and Assinaboine in 1886, Holy Family Mission in 1886 for the Blackfeet, and the Fort Peck Indian school in 1907 for the Northern Sioux.
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 passing 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 preceded them.
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.
In 1883, the Holy See erected the Vicariate of Montana, consisting of the entire territory and appointed Most Rev. Jean-Baptiste Brondel as its bishop.
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 early 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.
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 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.
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.
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-Billings. The announcement to the people of the diocese was published on March 26, 1980.
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.
Bishop Michael William Warfel, born on September 16, 1948, in Elkhart, Indiana, was ordained to the priesthood on April 26, 1980 by Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, Archbishop of Anchorage. On December 17, 1996, in Juneau, Michael William Warfel was ordained a bishop by Archbishop Hurley, and installed as the fourth Bishop of Juneau. In October of 2001, Bishop Warfel was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Fairbanks–while remaining at the same time Bishop of Juneau. Bishop Michael W. Warfel was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings on November 20, 2007 and installed its seventh Bishop on January 16, 2008. Bishop Warfel resigned the Office of Bishop of Great Falls-Billings on August 22, 2023.
Bishop Jeffrey Michael Fleming, born on February 10, 1966, in Billings, Montana, was ordained to the priesthood on May 19, 1992 and was appointed by Pope Francis as the Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings on April 19, 2022. On June 22, 2022 Bishop Fleming was ordained as bishop by Bishop Michael W. Warfel, the then Ordinary of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. Bishop Fleming became the eighth Bishop of Great Falls-Billings on August 22, 2023.