St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

A proposal to demolish a historic Catholic Church in Hamilton and replace it with a new building came before Hamilton's Board of Adjustments Monday. A third meeting has been set for Jan. 30 at the Hamilton City Courthouse.  

The division in the surrounding community and inside the parish of the historic St. Francis of Assisi Church was in plain view Monday night as the City of Hamilton’s Board of Adjustments heard another three hours of testimony.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena is seeking a conditional use permit that would allow for the dismantling of the 122-year-old church and the construction of a larger and more accessible building on the site.

So far, the board has heard six hours of public testimony and been provided with reams of written documentation from both sides of the proposal.

A third meeting has been set for Jan. 30 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hamilton City Courthouse.

At that meeting, board members will have the opportunity to ask questions of attorneys representing the church and the Southside Preservation Committee, which represents neighbors and others opposed to the church being torn down. Following the question-and-answer period, both sides will be allowed to offer a 10-minute summation before the board begins its deliberations.

About 80 people attended Monday night’s hearing.

Many spoke sadly about the division within the Hamilton community and the St. Francis of Assisi parish that’s followed the proposal to tear down the structure built by the famous Copper King, Marcus Daly.

Nansu Roddy has lived in a 115-year-old home not far from the church for the past 38 years. Her home was built by one of Daly’s business partners in Hamilton’s original townsite.

“It’s been a very frustrating process for the neighbors,” Roddy said. “We’ve been forced to protect our property rights against a very wealthy and powerful entity, the Catholic Church. Not easy. As property owners, we should have never been put in this position.”

Roddy said the neighbors weren’t notified about the proposal to tear down the church that serves as a centerpiece in the historic neighborhood until the church’s requested variances went before the Board of Adjustments last year.

The neighbors formed the Southside Preservation Committee, which filed the lawsuit that ended with an agreement that the Board of Adjustments would redo the process.

“Many of the parishioners who want to tear down the church are our friends,” Roddy said. “The division this proposal has created in this community and the church is unprecedented. It was not handled properly by the church as our neighbor.”

Some church parishioners told the board the current building is structurally unsound and not accessible to the handicapped or the elderly.

A retired physician, Smokey Callaghan-Stover, said the celebration of Mass is the center of the Catholic religious practice, but he estimated that a quarter of the local Catholic community can’t attend Mass at St. Francis of Assisi because of physical limitations caused by aging or disability.

“We need a sacred building that is safe, accessible and adequate for our entire faith community,” Callaghan-Stover said. “Our 123-year-old church was built during a time when materials or building practices are not what they are today.”

Currently, he said all the entrances into the church are above ground level, the aisles are too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers, and there is no way to quickly get people out of the building in an emergency.

“All of us love our existing church building and are saddened that it no longer meets our needs to fully practice with our religious faith community … however it is more worth it to us to be welcoming to all in our faith community than preserving a building that has become woefully inadequate,” Callaghan-Stover said.

Tom Holmes offered his testimony from his wheelchair. The St. Francis parishioner has been disabled since 1983.

Holmes said it’s difficult to get up the ramp with his wheelchair. The slope of the ramp is right at the edge of federal disability requirements. His troubles don’t end once he gets up the hill. Holmes said he’s been stuck in the entry door. Once inside, the doors there are also hard to navigate. And then Holmes said he either has to sit in the corner by himself or in the aisle.

“The church is not at all ADA accessible,” he said.

Joe Quinn has been a parishioner since 1966. He always figured that he would be “buried out of this church.”

Now he worries his church can’t keep up the maintenance of the building, which he said has no basement, siding that won’t hold paint and a roof that needs to be replaced to ensure that shingles will stay put.

“If we try to remodel, we’re going to spend as much money as it is to build a new church,” Quinn said. “There is no sense in doing that. We’re tired of trying to keep the maintenance going. I don’t want to sink another $2 million to remodel and still end up with nothing.”

Other longtime parishioners disagree.

Allen Maki said the estimated $5.5 million difference between renovating the old church and building a new church could used to provide 19 college scholarships or feed 34 hungry families in the valley for a year by tapping only into the interest on those funds.

“I feel ashamed that the church leadership has apparently not looked into any of this,” Maki said. “I feel ashamed that the church leadership has belittled and intimidated long-standing members of their own parish for disagreeing. I feel ashamed the church leadership says they would be willing to take out the MAPs program. I feel ashamed that the church leadership has now threatened our wonderful town of Hamilton. Above all, I feel ashamed that we have to have this discussion in Ravalli County.”

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Gina Schallenberger has been a parishioner for 43 years. She opposes the demolition of the historic building.

“First and foremost, the church is not just a building,” Schallenberger said. “It is a sacred space.”

The proposal to tear the building down has divided the church community and she fears that without compromise, that division won’t heal.

“I understand that the people who are in favor of this believe the current church does not meet the needs of today or needs of future, but demolishing is not the only solution,” Schallenberger said. “The new church could be moved to a suitable location out of town that would not impact neighbors, would leave the MAPS program in place and offer value to the people who care about sacred space and history.”

“Renovating buildings unites communities,” she said. “We have excellent examples of history preserved with the Creamery, the library, the old courthouse and the old hospital. Hamilton would not be the same if all the renovation of historic buildings had not been accomplished.”

Kristie Heiland spoke for 70 parishioners who signed a letter in support of saving the historic church.

The fourth-generation Bitterroot resident who thinks her great-grandparents may have been part of the original 50 families who attended the church said she is saddened by the division that’s occurred.

“They are my church family,” Heiland said. “I love them deeply. … There are a lot of parishioners who have come to me and asked me to be a voice for them because we are not all in agreement.”

An engineer by training, Heiland said she understands the challenges the church faces. As a lifelong Bitterroot Valley resident, she also saw a community come together to preserve the Daly Mansion and create “probably one of the most beautiful places in our county right now.”

Heiland said she’s fortunate to have lived in one place long enough to feel like she has put her roots down.

“I live in the same house that my dad was raised in,” she said. “So even though I’m 40, when I go into that home, I have a sense of my roots being there. I know it’s just a building, but it’s a special building to me.

“The same is true for the church,” Heiland said. “I know it’s a building, but when I go into St Francis, it not only has my faith but it has my roots. In times of trouble — when I needed to find my roots — that building was that sacred space that has my roots that are important to me. I think there are a lot of people who feel that same way.”

Heiland said the church does need a new building to accommodate everyone’s needs and potential growth, but the current location isn’t the right spot to do that.

“If you approve the request, the only people you will be appeasing is a portion of the church community and once the church is torn down, the building and the neighborhood cannot be restored,” she said. “As you know, this is a very final decision.”