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St Helena Cathedral

Montana is a place of craggy peaks, tough, towering pines, and windswept plains. In such a landscape, the pointed neo-gothic arches and tracery windows of St. Helena’s Cathedral might seem out of place, but, inconceivably, they don’t. Instead, the at once rugged-yet-intricate gothic stonework of the Cathedral manages to complement the sagebrush and ponderosa pine mountains that surround Helena, Montana.

Built between 1908 and 1924, the Cathedral was the brain child of Bishop John Patrick Carroll and architect A.O. Von Herbulis (which, as far as names go, is a doozy). Carroll initiated the project when he moved to the city in 1904. The Cathedral, like Carroll’s other pet project—the diocesan college which bears his name—was well timed to make the most of a citizenry flush with civic pride and cash. By the 1900s, Helena had matured from a rough-and-tumble gold camp into the state’s epicenter of wealth and culture. Not many years before—in 1894—the city had won a contentious popular election to become the state capital, and the elaborate façade of the Cathedral reflected the ambition and importance of the city. Von Herbulis modeled his design after that of the recently completed Votive Church in Vienna, where he had studied. In fact, St. Helena’s so closely resembles the other that one early postcard captioned “Helena’s Catholic Cathedral” actually shows Vienna’s Votivkirche (the sixth image down on this post from Helena As She Was).

Despite Atlas Obscura’s claim that the Cathedral is “out of place in the otherwise squat town of Helena,” the lofty many-arched monument actually fits quite well in the architectural diversity of the city’s historic district. This is a town, after all, with a civic center straight out of Arabian Nights, why not have a cathedral plucked from the middle of Europe? Take a stroll up Last Chance Gulch or around the mansion district and you’ll find—amidst the jumble of mock-Tudor windows and neo-classical pillars—far more gargoyles and arched windows than any decent west-of-the-Mississippi (or Atlantic for that matter) town ought to have.

In this ornately decorated town, St. Helena’s stands out as one of the best and most tasteful examples of the gothic revival. The front of the building is dominated by an ornate rose window framed by the soaring gilded-cross-topped spires—60 feet apart and each 230 feet tall. As beautiful as the exterior is, however, the interior is just as amazing, with twin rows of tree-like pillars supporting the high arched nave ceiling, all elaborately wrought in in marble and gold. Fifty nine exquisite stained glass windows flood the interior with light. The windows were built by the F.X. Zettler firm in Munich, which claimed that series detailing the history of the Church were the best ever produced by the company. In all, the Cathedral presents a grand and beautiful place of prayer.

To get the full effect of the building, plan on attending a service (schedule here). However, if you want to learn more about the architecture of this unique space, and study the stained-glass windows in more detail, I would advise taking a tour, which run 1:00 to 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer.

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