History is a funny thing.
Everyone has a different way of experiencing it.
For some, it’s the facts that matter. For others, it’s all about what they can see, touch and experience.
The rub happens when history and progress collide.
That’s what occurring on Hamilton’s Fifth Street at the site of one of the community’s most historic buildings.
The St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was built in 1896 on land donated by the town’s founder and Copper King, Marcus Daly, at a cost of $5,000. A.F. Heide of Everett, Washington, drew up the plans for the shingle-style building for $60.
In its day, the building constructed of ponderosa pine from Daly’s lumber mill must have been one of the grandest structures in the growing community. Calamity Jane, who operated a café on nearby Main Street, may have even stopped by for a look.
Daly was a Catholic. His wife, Margaret, was an Episcopalian. He donated the land for her church, too, but he did offer an entire block for his denomination.
But just like anything, buildings age and begin to crumble while the communities around them change.
Earlier this year, the parish of St. Francis came to the conclusion that the old church no longer met its needs. While an engineering study found the basic structure sound, the roof needed replacing at the cost of $50,000. A beehive inside the church’s walls led to the discovery that the siding had dry rot. A contractor said it would cost $250,000 to replace half of building’s siding.
Beyond that, the building didn’t meet ADA standards. People in wheelchairs couldn’t access the building’s single bathroom. The choir loft was a safety hazard and could no longer be used.
After much discussion — which members of the building committee will admit wasn’t always pleasant — the parish came to the conclusion the church needed to be torn down and rebuilt in a way that would honor its historic roots.
“They wanted to make sure the new church closely resembled the old one as closely as possible,” said Sonny Lasalle, a member of the church’s building committee. “We plan to refurbish the bell tower on site.”
The new church would more than double the seating capacity to more than 400. With the numbers of priests in the Diocese of Helena declining significantly, the committee said there may come a time when St. Francis serves the entire Bitterroot Valley and they’ll need that space.
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“This church was built for 50 families,” Lasalle said. “They were looking toward the future when decided how large it needed to be. Our proposal is this expansion isn’t for the next five years or even the next 10 … While we haven’t done a census to learn how many Catholics there are in the valley, we do know the valley is growing significantly.”
The estimated cost of the project is about $6 million. So far, about a third of that total has been raised. No one expects work to get started for at least a year.
That will be good news for a group of neighbors who feel as though they’ve been left out of discussions for what they believe “is the most historically significant building in the City of Hamilton.”
Recently, four of the neighbors sat down in a nearby historic Hamilton home to talk about their concerns over the future of the historic church.
“We all live in historical homes in this neighborhood,” said Deidre Engelman. “We all love the history of Hamilton. We just want the opportunity to have our concerns heard. We would like to have a community meeting with the church. So far, they haven’t asked for any input from the neighbors or the community.”
A few of the neighbors did meet with Father Jim Connor and Deacon Jim Kaney in April in an informal meeting, but Nansu Roddy said they’ve not heard anything directly from the Hamilton church since.
St. Francis was named one the area’s most endangered historic properties this year by the nonprofit Preserve Historic Missoula. The purpose of the list “is to generate a public discussion about the historic properties in our community and the potential threats they face.”
Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, said that organization believes there are other ways the church could address the need for more space.
“This is a building that has a great deal of charm, with its beautiful gable dormers and signature archway,” Jiusto said. “It has a lot of bearing and character. When I think about the quality of historical buildings in Hamilton, this is one that stands out.
“I do understand that they plan to try to capture some of those historic elements in the new building, but it won’t be the same,” she said. “It’s not the original, and the history will be lost.”
While the church isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Jiusto said it certainly would be eligible, which could open the door for grant funding.
“This is a historic cornerstone of our community, just like the Episcopal Church,” said Roddy, a neighbor. “We’re willing to work to help raise the money the church needs to meet its needs. We can help write grant applications. We want to be able to help save the church in a way that everyone will be happy in the end.
“Right now, there are a lot of people in the community who don’t know anything about this,” Roddy said. “We think it’s important that they understand what this community stands to lose.”
Tom and Alene Tonney live right across the street from the church in the historic home where Alene grew up.
“This church has been a part of me every day,” she said. “I wake up and look across the street and I see it. It’s wonderful to know that piece of history is still there … We often see people stop and take pictures. This town is a Marcus Daly town. This isn’t just another church. It’s a piece of the heritage left to us by Marcus Daly.
“It’s something that people need to consider,” Alene Tonney said. “It’s a piece of history that needs to be saved.”