Sunday Service ~ 10 a.m.
Laying the cornerstone of the present building, August 5, 1891.
by Vic Reiman
Life was not necessarily easy or even safe for the first Presbyterian missionaries who came to Montana Territory in the mid-1860s when the gold rush was in full swing and “road agents” threatened travelers’ fortunes or very lives. In the early summer of 1864 Dr. Jonathan Blanchard of the Cincinnati Presbytery visited Montana. (A presbytery is a regional association of Presbyterian churches.) He stayed in Virginia City for several weeks and preached in the courthouse. Blanchard soon departed for the East, having established no church in the territory.
Reverend George Grantham Smith of the Philadelphia Presbytery arrived in Bannack in June of 1864 and remained for about two years, preaching the gospel in Bannack, Virginia City, and adjoining camps and ranches. He found that making converts “was hard ‘prospecting’ in those days.” Living conditions were primitive and very expensive. Rev. Smith recalled: “I paid $28.00…for coarse factory [fabric] sufficient to make a bed tick and pillow, which I filled with dried grass for myself and the mice that…insist[ed] on bunking in with me.” Smith left Montana in 1866, also without establishing a church.
The first organized Presbyterian congregation in Montana was established in Helena on August 1, 1869 by the peripatetic Mr. Sheldon Jackson D.D., who had been appointed Superintendent of Missions of the Western Territories by the presbyteries of Missouri River, Fort Dodge, and Des Moines. In Helena Mr. Jackson brought together twelve people—eleven women and one man—into the first congregation. This group continued to meet together for the next three years even though it had no minister nor any man to serve as an elder. It was a lonely congregation, being the only church of its denomination between Portland and Minnesota.
Upon Sheldon Jackson’s return to Montana Territory, on June 15, 1872 he placed the young missionary, James R. Russell, as pastor of the Helena church and the First Presbyterian Church was officially born. Sheldon Jackson was no slouch when it came to organizing churches in that he founded six other churches in Montana in only fifteen days. These seven churches, in Gallatin City, Bozeman, Hamilton, Virginia City, Missoula, Deer Lodge and Helena, constituted the nascent Presbytery of Montana, whose first meetings were held in Helena in the old courthouse, which was just north of where the present Lewis and Clark County courthouse now stands. The group also met in Mr. Jackson’s bedroom at the International Hotel downtown.
For the first years of its existence, First Presbyterian was without a regular home and met at various locations, including at the old academy on Rodney Street and in the Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street. By the fall of 1873 a Sunday school was well established.
The first actual church building was dedicated free-of-debt on August 13, 1876 after several years of fundraisers which included bazaars, strawberry festivals, and a fried oyster and plum pudding Christmas dinner, no turkeys being available. This church was located at the corner of 5th Ave. and Ewing in what is now the northwest corner of the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse parking lot. Mr. Rommel, the first pastor, stated that the rugged frontier atmosphere of the Helena community in those days was an obstacle to the sanctity and serenity of the new church. Mr. Rommel’s successor reported, for example, that “two gentlemen could engage in a lively scrimmage with threatened pistols in discussion over the minister’s sermon of ‘Blessed are the pure or heart.’”
Through these trials FPC persevered and continued to grow, so that early in 1886 the idea of the need for a new church building arose. Pastor Vernon Moore recalled: “…Our old church, once the source of so much pride, had in ten years become dilapidated and draughty. I recall one gentleman of shining pate, an extremely rare attendant of the church, who complained that whenever he came he always felt such a draught on the top of his head…”
The property on 11th Avenue where FPC is currently located was purchased in 1890 and the first service was held in the completed new building on March 13, 1892. The new church of 1892 was not the First Presbyterian of today. The Romanesque north wall of the 1892 church is clearly visible from 11thAvenue in the center of the mass of the building and includes a small tower and an arched doorway.
Construction of a beautiful new sanctuary and bell tower on the east end of the 1892 church was completed in 1905 and a 12-rank Bennett pipe organ was installed in 1909. The structure of FPC we know today was completed by an addition to the south of the 1892 church in the early 1950s and the construction of a large east wing in the 1990s.
As we reflect on this sesquicentennial of the founding of First Presbyterian Church it is good to remember the stalwart men and women who contributed to the growth of the church, including at least one individual who was willing to bunk with rodents in order to bring Presbyterianism to the Big Sky.