Stepping out of the car at St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, the air was thick with smoke from recent fires throughout the western US and Glacier National Park. Everything was quiet and still.
Before us stood the Mission Church, the place where, in approximately 1890, my great, great grandfather, Eli “Kelly” Cyr was raised from the age of 8, after his mother died of lung fever. The eldest of 5 children, Eli and his brothers were sent to St. Ignatius Mission while his two younger sisters, under the age of 2, were sent to live with relatives until they were old enough to join their brothers.
Eli (far right) and his younger brothers, circa 1890.
“The Mission, and the town that grew up around it, was founded in 1854 by Jesuit missionaries and named for their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola. In the following years it was the home of the first Jesuit theologate and industrial arts school in the Northwest, the first Catholic Sisters and Catholic school in Montan, and the first hospital, sawmill, flour mill, printing press, carpenter shop and blacksmith shop in the Mission Valley.”
– excerpt from St. Ignatius Mission: Historical Site. 1977
“Main Street of St. Ignatius with Mission Church and School in background about 1895.”
During his time at the Mission, under the tutelage of the brothers and sisters, Eli learned how shoemaking, music, and cooking. Each of these skills proved beneficial as Eli struck out on his own, eventually marrying and having a daughter. Through the years, he was a cobbler, a bandleader, and the owner of a confectionary and a restaurant.
While the Mission was founded in 1854, this church wasn’t built until the 1890s and is one of the last remaining buildings affiliated with the Mission due to multiple fires and lack of funding.
Construction of the Mission Church was completed in approximately 1893. Walking through its thick, oak doors one is immediately met with an impressive array of murals covering the walls and ceiling. These murals were all painted by the Jesuit cook and handyman, Brother Joseph Carignano. Brother Joseph had no formal art training, but he did have a vision and a dedication to the project he felt called to.
The three paintings behind the altar are representations of three visions that St. Ignatius Loyola had. Above, is a depiction of the Last Judgement.
Though the Mission Church was not fully completed before Eli Cyr had grown enough to strike out on his own, and while many of the buildings were destroyed by fire, there are still remnants of what was there during his time.
The flour mill was in operation from 1864-1934
The flour mill now. Just a shadow of its former self, yet beautiful all the same.
The flour grinding stones that remain are now located near the Mission Church as a testimony to the productivity of 70 years.
St. Ignatius Mission was a vast community in its heyday. There are no longer records to let us know how many boys and girls came through its doors as students or orphans, much less the Jesuit Brothers and Ursuline Sisters. And while many of its buildings are no longer standing, it is a treat to walk through the grounds and get a sense of the history.
Built in 1854 by the Jesuit Fathers and Brothers, what is now the Mission Museum was originally a log cabin that the Brothers slept in. The upstairs is no longer accessible as it has been ceilinged off.
I do wish I knew some of what my great, great grandfather thought about his time there. There aren’t any actual stories from him that have survived time, just shadows that he passed on to his daughter, faint traces of a young boy who, for the most part, enjoyed his time with the Sisters, especially in the kitchen.
It was an absolute joy to make a connection, however distant, to someone I’ve only heard and read stories about. Eli was a man who, like us all, struggled with his faith and how to live it out. I’m sure he didn’t do it perfectly. But he did it.
As an adult, he helped build a church or two. He and his wife, Clara, were constantly opening their home to whatever Father, Brother or Sister was coming through their small town. Their hospitality was bigger than their budget and everyone seemed to be blessed by their friendship.
And while my family now is not Catholic, it’s good to be able to see a bit of my ancestral past and know that there is a heritage of faith that has been built through the generations. I hope it will continue to grow for many generations to come.
My traveling buddies, left to right: Evan (son), Molly (daughter), Jenna (friend).
Tune in next week to see more of our travels…
Until then, Love God. Love people. Pray hard.
[Cover image by Donnie Sexton]