When you think of Montana’s first gold rushes, and mining towns like Virginia City, saloons, brothels, brawls, and a sheriff who supposedly did double duty as a highway robber, church is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But, in fact, churches have been part of the fabric of Montana life for nearly as long as trading outposts and saloons.
The state’s first Episcopal Church met in Virginia City on Christmas Day, 1865, but they weren’t even the first church in Virginia City–the Methodists had started meeting the year earlier. The Episcopal Church initially met without a priest–Thomas Dimsdale, editor of the Montana Post, was the first reader (lay leader) for the church. (Perhaps he had more free time on his hands since the Vigilantes, of which he was also a leader, had disbanded in 1864).
For the first year or so, the Episcopal Church met in a variety locations–the church website lists a law office, the Young Men’s Literary society, and above a general store. According to Bill Peterson, of the Montana Heritage Commission, the church also met above a saloon. However, by 1868 the church had found a permanent home at the corner of Broadway and East Idaho streets. A new wooden building was built in 1875, and then, in 1903, the current building was constructed.
The current building, made from beautiful pink and gray local granite, was financed with a $20,000 donation from Mary Elling in memory of her husband. Perhaps the most striking part of the building are its stained glass windows. For many years it was thought that these were Tiffany windows. However, recent research has suggested that they were actually made by a Tiffany competitor, Munich Studios out of Chicago. Two Munich Studios artists, Franz Mayer and F.X. Zettler made stained glass windows for several churches in the region (including the Helena Cathedral) and it the styles are very similar. The church’s organ is also quite something. It was made in Vermont and shipped around Cape Horn to San Francisco before boarding a train to Dillon and arriving in Virginia City in 1904 packed on a wagon.
The church continues to serve the local community to this day, and even when there isn’t a service, the stained glass windows cast the darkened interior in a bejeweled glow.
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