Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) What's believed to be the oldest standing structure in Missoula County is on track for needed restoration, so long as advocates at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula land a Montana Historic Preservation Grant later this year.

St. Michael's Church, donated by the Helena Diocese around 1989, still contains many features carved by Brother William Claessens in 1863. Claessens was a master carpenter and much of his handiwork survives after 160 years.

“It's the oldest building in Missoula County, that we know of,” said Matt Lautzenheiser, the executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. “At the time, it was considered the first church in Montana built specifically for white settlers.”

The town of Hellgate was established as a trading post in 1860 along Mullan Road. Under the suggestion of Father Urban Grassi, the superior of St. Ignatius Indian Mission, local missionaries endeavored to erect the church along the Mullan trading route.

To do so, they tapped Claessens – a Jesuit – for the job.

“Supposedly, he constructed the floor, the pews and the altar out of one tree,” said Lautzenheiser. “The entire church was put together with no nails. Whether it's actually true or not, it makes for a great story.”

St. Michael's Church, date unknown. (Historical Museum at Fort Missoula)
St. Michael's Church, date unknown. (Historical Museum at Fort Missoula)

St. Michael's opened to weekly mass in 1866 and drew parishioners from local villages. Lautzenheiser said the missionaries were welcomed by the locals, as they administered “medical services in the full sense of charity, irrespective of the race, color, nationality or creed of those in need.”

But within a decade, the church's importance began to wane. Another church was built in 1864 in Frenchtown and, by 1866, Hellgate Village practically vanished. Luckily for local historians, however, the church was relocated to the Catholic Block in downtown Missoula, then back to Hellgate in 1961. It was finally placed at Fort Missoula in 1981.

Thanks in part to the Sisters of Providence, the church had been dedicated as an historic landmark in 1962. Some of the original logs had even been numbered.

“We're proposing some replacement of some logs that, on the back side of the church, have rotted,” said Lautzenheiser. “We do want to preserve those logs as best we can. Unlike the roof and windows and shutters, a lot of the logs, especially on the lower level, we believe are original to that structure.”

Advocates next month will submit an application in hopes of landing a Montana Historic Preservation Grant. Earlier this week, restoration advocates also announced their goal of securing a similar grant to restore the Penwell Building, built in 1910 on Higgins Avenue to accommodate railroad passengers at the Milwaukee Depot.

St. Michael's Church was moved to Fort Missoula in 1981. (Historical Museum at Fort. Missoula."
St. Michael's Church was moved to Fort Missoula in 1981. (Historical Museum at Fort. Missoula."

Along with the logs and dobbing, restoration work will also apply two coats of linseed oil. The windows, which Lautzenheiser said “aren't even period accurate,” will also be replaced.

“We'll be replacing those with historical replicas, circa 1863,” he said. “The final piece of the actual restoration part is we'll be installing a new cedar shake roof. The other thing we'd like to do is replace the porch and railing that currently exists.”

If secured, the grant and a local match of around $8,000 will fund the $144,000 restoration project. While photos of the original structure in the 1800s haven't been found, other photos depict the church in 1981, Lautzenheiser said.

“I think it's a really worthy project,” he said. “We're excited to apply for this and see this great church continue to educate.”

He added the the church tells the story of one of Missoula's earliest religious communities.