St. Mary’s Mission: Birthplace of Montana

 St. Mary's Mission, Photo Brian D'Ambrosio

St. Mary’s Mission, Montana

Father Antonio Ravalli, a native of Italy, built the St. Mary’s Mission chapel in 1866. Father Ravalli became Montana’s first surgeon, medical physician, and pharmacist. In addition, this resourceful, multifaceted man also taught classes in the Native Salish language, and constructed Montana’s first gristmill and sawmill.

St. Mary’s Mission Bitterroot Valley

St. Mary’s, often called the birthplace of Montana, is one of the state’s oldest and most intriguing places. The mission site in Stevensville not only includes the The Historic Chapel, but also living quarters for priests and Chief Victor, other outbuildings, a cemetery plus Indian burial grounds, and a museum displaying some of Ravalli’s hand tools and farm equipment. Some of the Father’s crafted furniture, sculpted statues and painted pictures, are also on display at the mission.

“We refer to St. Mary’s as the cradle of civilization in Montana,” says St. Mary’s Director Colleen Meyer during our interview. “This is the spot where Montana originated.”


The mission was established in 1841 by Father Pierre Jean DeSmet and five Jesuit associates who came to the valley in response to the Salish Indians request for “Black Robes,” or Christian missionaries. The new missionary post, as well as the river and the highest mountain peak to the west, were named “St. Mary’s.” Fifty-years later the name of the river was switched to “Bitterroot” by the Forest Service.

The mission closed in 1850 due to growing antagonism between the Salish and Blackfeet Indians, who were battling neighbors. But requests from the Salish Indians prompted the Jesuits to re-open the ministry in 1866. Ravalli came back to assemble and paint a new chapel.

St. Mary’s Mission, Stevensville, Montana

Father Ravioli, Credit-

Father Ravioli, Credit-

Ravalli, who spent almost twenty-five years ministering at St. Mary’s, never returned to Italy. He died in Stevensville in 1884. The county bears his legacy today (in 1893, Ravalli County was given his name). Meyer refers to Father Ravalli as a “true renaissance man.”

“Father Ravalli was Montana’s first professional architect,” said Meyer. “He also dispensed and practiced medicine as Montana’s first professionally trained doctor. In addition, this enormously talented man was a sculptor, artist, engineer, painter, and farmer.”

The mission lands include Father Ravalli’s log cabin residence, which also served as his primitive pharmacy. It was Montana’s first drive-up business, as he distributed medicine through an opening in the west outside wall. The home of Chief Victor of the Flatheads, who died in 1870, is also on the property. The house is now a small Indian museum featuring Native jewelry and photographs.

In 1879, an addition to the front of the chapel building doubled its size. The entire mission complex has been restored to that period, and the original cross atop the church’s bell tower currently sits behind glass in the church, in front of a sliver of blue fabric acquired from Father Ravalli’s hometown in Ferrara, Italy.

St. Mary’s Mission and Father Ravalli

Over the past few years Meyer has been in steady contact with Carlo Ravalli, a distant cousin of Father Ravalli’s. In 2006, Ravalli was inducted into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans, a program established by the State Legislature in 1979 to pay homage to those who have made significant and unique contributions to Montana’s history. Past honorees include entrepreneur Marcus Daly, Helena-born actor Gary Cooper, and poet Richard Hugo. A plaque and photograph of Rev. Ravalli have been placed at the capital as part of the gallery.

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  • Quite a man Father Ravioli was. One of the priest, Father Casimir, at Mount Saint Michael’s in Spokane has been to St. Mary’s several times and only has positive things to say about Father Ravioli (though he never met him of course, but has read a book with Fr. Ravioli in it and was happy to visit St. Mary’s). I wish that I could have met Father Ravioli in person because it would be an honor.

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