Founders Day will be celebrated Sunday, September 23 at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville beginning at 2 p.m. The celebration marks the 171st anniversary of the establishment of the first permanent white settlement in what is now Montana. This year the focus has been on Father Anthony Ravalli for whom the county is named. This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.
In 1831 a delegation of Native Americans traveled by river and overland to St. Louis to seek out missionaries, but no Blackrobes were available at the time. Over an eight-year period, the persistent Salish and Nez Perce sent a second, third and fourth group of men. Even when two of these traveling delegations ended in death, the fourth delegation set out for St. Louis.
It was September 24, 1841, when Fr. Pierre DeSmet arrived in the Bitter Root Valley with his fellow Jesuit missionaries. Their supplies were transported in three carts and a wagon, the first vehicles to enter this area. The first settlement and church were built on the east bank of the Bitter Root River.
In October of 1845, Father Anthony Ravalli arrived at the mission carrying with him two mill stones, from which were constructed the first flourmill and sawmill in what was to become Montana. The mills were powered by water from nearby Burnt Fork Creek. Father Ravalli – priest, physician, pharmacist, architect, artist, mechanic, farmer, and educator – left the imprint of his genius on Montana.
As a priest he served the Indians here from 1845 to 1850 and again from 1866 until his death in 1884. The compassionate and caring man attended anyone who needed his services, be they Native or white, Catholic or non, rich or impoverished. Fr. Ravalli traveled over an area of 200 miles during intense cold and summer heat, and over miles of rough terrain. Fr. Ravalli was the first to inoculate the Indians against smallpox, to amputate frozen limbs and set broken bones. This good man never accepted fees for his services, but turned all donations over to the mission. Father Ravalli’s contribution to Montana was also formally recognized when the 1898 Montana State Legislative Assembly named Ravalli County in his honor.
Remembered mostly as the first of many missions in the Pacific Northwest, St. Mary’s was much more; it was the first permanent settlement in all of Montana. Here the first gardens were cultivated and grown with the help of Montana’s first irrigation ditches. The first wheat was harvested and ground in Montana’s first flourmill. The first cattle were raised and marked with the “Cross on a Hill” brand. The first logs were sawn and Montana’s first clapboard buildings were assembled. Here was the first doctor’s office and dispensary for medicine. The first classes in reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught in the Salish language. The first band played numbers by German and Italian composers. Here the first church was built and the first pulpit placed for the teaching of Christianity.
As a mission, too, it was more than a first. St. Mary’s of the Rockies was known as the “Mother of Missions.” The Jesuit enterprises of the three Northwest states, an area as vast as western Europe today, with their handful of busy and talented missionaries, did more to transform this vast interior than any other group or force. St. Mary’s Mission was a “cradle of civilization” transcending the borders of Montana.
St. Mary’s Mission left a lasting imprint on the history of the state of Montana. Father DeSmet with his companions drove the first wagon into Montana and brought Christianity to the Rocky Mountains. Here, they taught the Indians to plow virgin grassland, to fence and irrigate, thus establishing the roots of agriculture in Montana. Corrals were constructed, cattle bred and nurtured, a brand registered, thus the beginning of the cattle industry in this state. The first school was instituted to educate the Indians.
Father Ravalli, who was also a doctor and pharmacist, practiced medicine here and opened the first infirmary and ride-up pharmacy, which can be visited today. Fr. Ravalli formed a lending library, planted an apple orchard and Italian herb garden, adapting Indian medicine into his own practice. In Missoula County the first conveyance of property in Montana is registered from St. Mary’s Mission to John Owen, in November of 1850. While serving as General Superior of the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions, and stationed at St. Mary’s, Fr. Joseph Giorda was named the first Chaplain of the 1866 Montana Territorial Legislature. In 1876 the first bridge was built over the Bitter Root River, two miles below Fort Owen.
In 1988, St. Mary’s Mission was the site of the Montana Statehood Centennial Celebration.
The Salish Indians, themselves, are a tribute to the lasting effects of the early efforts of the Jesuit Fathers to prepare the Indians for the onslaught of the western migration, which so decimated the tribes when two cultures clashed. Among all the tribes in Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation are unique in their independence, in governing themselves,
educating their children and maintaining their culture and reverence for their ancestors. The Salish return each September to honor their ancestors who are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Historic St. Mary’s Mission tells a story of dauntless courage and perseverance. Visitors are amazed to see the incredible artistic and creative skills of Fr. Ravalli, a true Renaissance man. An apple tree, a remnant of Fr. Ravalli’s orchard of the 1870’s, continues to blossom each spring, and reminds visitors of the enduring spirit of the Salish Indians and the Jesuit missionaries. The historic buildings are furnished with many original pieces and share remarkable stories.
In 1941, the centennial of the mission was celebrated in a colorful and impressive memorial service in Stevensville. In the presence of many state and church officials, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States celebrated Mass honoring the memory of Montana’s first missionaries. An amphitheater seated thousands while hundreds more stood throughout the ceremony.
As was done last year, a highlight of this year’s event is a skit in which several people in period clothing and native regalia will perform a re-enactment of the founding of St. Mary’s which took place 171 years ago on September 24. This year’s re-enactment will be of the Salish Indians welcoming the Blackrobe missionaries in 1841, followed by Chief Victor greeting Fr. Anthony Ravalli in 1845.
Stevensville Civic Club member and local book publisher Dale Burk has done the bulk of the historical research that went into writing the skits. Burk said that the skits are not an exact re-enactment of what happened, like the re-enactments of certain Civil War battles that take place across the country, but are designed to convey the significance of the events that are historically accurate.
The idea of performing a skit at the annual Founders Day celebration also, it turns out, has some historical precedent, as a skit was performed at the 1941 celebration.
Another highlight of the 2012 event will be a presentation on Father Ravalli by Dr. Ellen Baumler, Interpretive Historian with the Montana Historical Society, and a special presentation by Salish tribal members. Winners of the student poster contest will also be announced.
The Knights of Columbus will be offering a barbecue meal from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Guided tours will also be conducted following the ceremony.
The founding of the Stevensville community is based on unique happenings and events, events that began 48 years before Montana became a state, events that establish Stevensville as “Montana’s oldest town.” The first rare event occurred when the Indians invited white men to come into their world.
One hundred and seventy-one years later, the Stevensville Civic Club and Historic St. Mary’s Mission hope to once again give these early events the recognition and honor they deserve at Sunday’s Founders Day celebration. They hope you’ll be there too. The Mission is located at the west end of 4th Street. Call 777-5734 for more information.