Family’s devotion to rarely used church spans a century

On the high plains of Eastern Montana, abandoned churches are nearly as plentiful as abandoned schoolhouses.

From a distance, the little white church sitting on a rise nine miles west and a little south of Broadview looks as if it might be one of those forlorn, forgotten structures.

But step inside and it is immediately clear that this is a church still under someone’s loving care. The ornate altar, with its prominent statue of the Virgin Mary and a front panel featuring a relief sculpture of the Last Supper, is bright and beautifully preserved.

The walls look freshly whitewashed, and the sky-blue panel behind the altar looks freshly painted. The wooden pews are all in good shape, and the restored Stations of the Cross—tableaux depicting the trial, suffering and crucifixion of Christ— would not look out of place in a cathedral.

“It’s pretty amazing, actually,” Jean Downey said, “not something you expected out in the middle of absolutely nowhere.”

Downey lives next door to the church on land homesteaded by her great-great-uncle J.B. “Barney” Gotken. Barney and his wife Georgiana donated three acres of their homestead on which to build the church.

The parish was formed in 1908 or 1909 and parishioners attended Mass in the home of J.J. Barrett in the early years. On July 4, 1913, at a celebration at the Barrett ranch, enough money was raised to begin construction of the church.

Parishioners evidently didn’t waste any time, because the first Mass was celebrated at the church—Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church—on Aug. 15, 1913. A photo from that day shows the church was not really complete, with the front of the church and the half-built steeple still shrouded in scaffolding.

The presiding priest was Father Aloysius Mueller, out of Roundup, and he stood in front of a makeshift altar of packing boxes and planks. For pews, there were planks resting on nail kegs.

Downey isn’t sure when the church stopped being used regularly, but she thinks it might have been in the early 1960s. Parish records show that 12 priests served there over the years.

The beginning of the end was in 1931, when St. Theresa’s Catholic Church was moved from the town of Comanche to Broadview. The town church gradually grew more popular than the one out in the country, reached by a succession of gravel roads.

These days, according to Darren Eultgen, chancellor of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Our Lady of the Assumption is not technically a church but a “chapel of occasional worship.” He said there are probably about 20 such chapels in the diocese, some of them as well-maintained as the one near Broadview.

“People seem to be very dedicated to these little, local places,” he said.

Cross

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The first Station of the Cross, as seen in Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

That has certainly been the case with Downey’s family. She and her cousin Karen Schott, who also lives nearby, showed a visitor around the property on Monday. They came armed with numerous photos, records and artifacts touching on the history of the 102-year-old church.

They told of the big year of 1916, when money from a wheat field half a mile away from the churc, was used to buy pews, the Stations of the Cross and other furnishings. The steeple was finally finished that year, too, and on Nov. 5, 1916, the church was officially dedicated.

All along, the church has been the scene of numerous milestones in the families of Downey and Schott.

Downey’s parents, Glenn Frey and Patricia Stiles, were married in the church on June 22, 1957. There were no more weddings there until July 23, 1976, when Downey’s sister, Kim, married James Janshen. The last wedding there was in 2001, when Padriac Moriarty wed Downey’s sister, Kristin, in 2001.

Downey thinks the last funeral in the church was her grandmother’s, in 1982.

For Downey herself, the church just over the fence has been her own personal refuge, “kind of my serenity.” In the midst of some very difficult times, she said, she would go to Our Lady of the Assumption and let herself in.

“I just sit here, and it’s so peaceful,” she said.

Family members, occasionally aided by other nearby residents, did basic upkeep on the church through the years. What “really saved this thing,” Schott said, was a new metal roof in 2008. The old roof was destroyed by hail, and family members were surprised and delighted to learn that the diocese, which still owned the church, had insurance on it.

The insurance coverage paid for the roof, which protected all the other work done on the structure. The big push came before the centennial of the church in 2013. The interior was repainted, the Stations of the Cross were refurbished and the altar, its ornamentation made of plaster and horsehair, was cleaned up and restored.

The original organ still sits up near the altar, but another pump organ, from a Catholic church in Lavina, was donated to Our Lady of the Assumption by the Hanser family and sits near the front entrance.

Much of the work was done by family members, but many people from the area helped out, too.

“No matter if it was a little thing or a big thing, it was all a huge help,” Downey said.

The centennial Mass drew a huge crowd—at least by Our Lady of the Assumption standards—estimated by Downey at 250. After the service, everyone went outside, to the south side of the church, to pose for a photo similar to the one taken on the day of the first Mass in 1913.

Mary

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A station of the Virgin Mary adorns the top of the altar. (Apparently wrong: See reader’s note below.)

Mass is still celebrated once at year the church, on the Feast of the Assumption in August. In keeping with tradition, a potluck supper is held after the Mass.

“This summer, I wasn’t even here, but they had Mass here and a potluck at my home,” Downey said.

The church used to have a stove but is now unheated, and it has no running water or electricity. There is an old outhouse out back, and for events like the centennial Mass, portable toilets are brought in.

Downey and Schott said they would like to have the diocese turn the property back to their family. They could then make the church into a wedding chapel, using all proceeds to fund further improvements to the church.

It needs a new floor and foundation, they said, and shades over the windows to keep the sun off the floors and woodwork. Downey said her mother mentioned the possibility to diocesan officials a few years ago. But “they just don’t want to let it go,” Downey said.

Schott said she understands. She’s not sure herself what would happen if the property reverted to their family.

“If you do take it out of the church, are Jean’s and my kids going to keep it going?” she asked.

Eultgen, the diocesan chancellor, said any such proposal would have to start with the priest who serves the Broadview community, in this case the Rev. Douglas Krings of Roundup, who was not available for comment this week.

“Is it possible?” Eultgen asked. Yes, it’s possible. Is it done very often? No, it’s not.”

Whatever happens with that proposal, Schott and Downey said their families, for the time being, plan to keep the church in good shape.

“I always think about what our families had to go through to live here and build this,” Schott said. “They knew what they needed to do make their community strong.”

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