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Through the Window of the Archives

by Evalyn Batten Johnson

Source: Dick Pace Archives of Thompson-Hickman Library;Great Falls Tribune

On Christmas Day of 1865, a small group of Montanans gathered in William Y. Lovell’s law office in Virginia City for the first Episcopal church service in Montana Territory.

Thomas J. Dimsdale, editor, schoolteacher, author, and transplanted Englishman, read the Divine Service from the Book of Common Prayer. Dimsdale continued as reader for the next 12 weeks; after that, services were held at Young Men’s Literary Society.

Over the next year, services were held occasionally, but then there was announcement that a bishop had been named for Montana Territory. It was Daniel S. Tuttle who arrived in Virginia City by stagecoach in July 1867 during a snowstorm – a freak of weather of which Montanans are accustomed. He held his first service on July 21 in the territorial council chambers above John Rockfellow’s store on Jackson Street in Virginia City. 


He visited briefly with the parish and went back to Helena. He returned to Virginia City in August to spend the winter raising money to buy an incomplete church building on lower Idaho Street. This framed building had been abandoned by the Methodists. Bishop Tuttle purchased it for about $3,400 and finished construction of the building.

By 1887, the Episcopal congregation was faced with keeping the building repaired. However, in 1900, when prominent Virginia City banker and merchant Henry Elling died, his widow offered money for a brand new church, one block up the street on Idaho, as a memorial to Elling.

Through all the planning of the past, the year 1904 saw the dedication of the new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Virginia City. It was built of native stone from the quarry in the hills above Hillside Cemetery. It is still a prominent showplace in the old mining camp. Of particular interest are the Tiffany stained glass windows that glow all around the church.

What young Bishop Tuttle planned and started, plus rapid growth, soon founded the Montana Diocese in 1904. In due time, young Bishop Tuttle grew in fame and stature as the spiritual shepherd of the people of these shining mountains. To the west and the east, he became known as the “Bishop of All Outdoors.” He preached in deserted store buildings, public halls, saloons and log cabins. Most of his sleeping was done between blankets, or as a guest in some dirt-roofed home. He travelled by stage, by horseback, and by foot. Throughout the length and breadth of Montana he found “good men and true men.” A miner once declared; “He’s full jeweled and 18 carats fine.”

As the years rolled by, Bishop Tuttle found it impossible to care adequately for his missionary diocese that included Utah, Idaho, and the Montana Territory. Finally, in 1880, he resigned his work in Montana to the care of Bishop Leigh Brewer and headed east to become bishop of Missouri.

Today, the church bells still ring, calling people to worship – needless to say, Virginia City has undergone numerous changes from the mining camp days of 1863, re-awaking in the 1940s as a landmark in the great state of Montana that has strength of the people of the past, present and future, to keep the bells ringing.

church google image 3.jpg

1920s Postcard

The History of St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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