It's Academy Awards season and in preparing this month's edition of Nuggets From Helena, I am reminded of Sidney Poitier's Oscar-winning performance in the 1963 movie, “Lilies of the Field.” In the movie, Poitier portrays Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman/jack-of-all-trades who reluctantly ends up building a chapel for a group of immigrant German nuns in the Arizona desert. Mother Maria Marthe, played by Austrian born Lilia Skala (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) bluntly informs the protesting Smith that he will build the nuns a chapel. After protracted negotiation, Smith reluctantly agrees to construct the chapel. The movie makes for a memorable story.
And so does Carroll College's conversion of its century old gymnasium into a beautiful campus chapel. The chapel is an architectural gem and a beautiful addition to the campus. This conversion is a wonderful example of preserving the best elements of an old and outdated structure while creating a stunning new building for a completely different use. The creation of All Saints Chapel marks the first time in the 110-year history of the Catholic college that a campus building has been designed solely for worship.
A century ago marked a period of curriculum growth and campus expansion for the young college, which was founded in 1909. A new building housing the gymnasium and science laboratories was constructed by longtime Helena contractors Frank and Charles Jacoby. Jacoby & Sons Construction Company was one of Montana's earliest and best known construction companies. In 1878, Charles Jacoby had came with his mother and other family members to join his carpenter father who was working in Helena. They rode a steamboat up the Missouri River to Fort Benton and then traveled overland by stage to the capital city. The Jacoby firm built such Helena landmarks as the old Western Life building at 404 Fuller Ave., Saint John’s Hospital, the original YMCA, old Shodair Hospital and, following a disastrous fire in 1928, the Gold Block and the La Londe buildings in downtown Helena.
Under unseasonably warm temperatures and clear skies, on Nov. 24, 1917, Helena Bishop John Patrick Carroll presided over the cornerstone laying ceremony for the college's second building. The day was marked by a procession and speeches, and the college choir directed by future Helena Bishop Joseph Michael Gilmore added to the festivities. The new three-story building on the north end of the campus was nearly complete the day of the cornerstone ceremony. As a consequence, the cornerstone was laid on the building's third floor. Original plans for the new wing envisioned a seven-story building with additional dormitory rooms to be above the state-of-the art gymnasium. The additional four floors were never constructed.
On the day of the ceremony, the Independent Record reported, “the new building would contain bowling alleys and the biological laboratory on the first floor; the gymnasium with adjoining shower and locker rooms on the second floor, and a running track, spectators' gallery, and physics and chemistry laboratories on the third floor.” Another local publication, The Helena Catholic Monthly proclaimed, “the gymnasium is conceded to be the finest structure of its kind in the northwest.” The same publication reported the laboratories contained the most up-to-date equipment for the study of chemistry, physics, biology and botany.
The new building was completed over the coming months and commencement exercises were conducted in the new gymnasium in May 1918. Montana and the college were not immune from world events. America had entered World War I in April 1917, and a number of Carroll students or alumni enlisted in the war effort. Three former Carroll students were killed in the Great War. The February 1919 edition of the college newspaper, The Prospector, noted that a requiem Mass was celebrated on campus for Lt. Harold Joyce, Pvt. Raymond Brent, and Pvt. Roy Piedalue on Jan. 16, 1919.
Over the next century, the gymnasium would provide a venue for countless basketball games, gymnastic events and the annual college “smoker,” an amateur boxing event featuring student pugilists. The yearly smoker was directed for many years by longtime Carroll English professor Henry Burgess. The building's science classrooms and laboratories introduced hundreds of future doctors, dentists, scientists and educators to the college's expanding science curriculum. Former District Judge Gordon Bennett reminisced about being taught mathematics in the 1917 building by Father Bernard Topel, along with fellow classmate Dutch Hunthausen in the early 1940s. He noted the classes were small, only five or six students in a class. He said it was almost like having an individual tutor. He noted that one came to know fellow students and teachers very well.
In 1957, the laboratories were moved to the new science building on the south side of the campus. The gymnasium continued as a sports venue, but the old lab spaces were converted to house the college's art, music and drama departments. Over the years talented faculty members including Harry Smith, Joe Munzenrider and Dorothy Harper, among others, enhanced Carroll's liberal arts tradition in the modified space.
All Saints Chapel
In the early 1960s, the College developed a comprehensive Campus Master Plan which was modified in 1997-1998 to reflect changing student needs. The new campus chapel is a product of the revised plan. Design of the new chapel was conceived by CTA Architects Engineers of Billings. Dick Anderson Construction of Helena converted the century old gym into the All Saints Chapel over the course of nearly two years. The new ceiling/roof adds roughly 19 feet to the previous roof line. The interior height of the chapel is 50 feet tall and the result is stunning. The chapel retained a portion of the old gym's running track which is now a balcony providing additional chapel seating. The 13,310 square-foot chapel was formally dedicated in November 2017, a century after the original gymnasium cornerstone was laid. The new chapel has a seating capacity of over 400, making it possible for the first time to accommodate large liturgical events on campus.
The historic porphyry stonework of the exterior, which was quarried locally, was removed from the original building and then put back so the chapel exterior matches seamlessly with the adjacent campus landmark — Saint Charles Hall. Construction of the chapel was made possible through nearly $7 million in donations.
Preservation of old buildings always presents a myriad of challenges. Most often, it would be far easier and less costly to start from scratch and build a completely new structure. Repurposing a historic building into an inviting and useful new structure is no easy task. Carroll's conversion of the 1917 gymnasium to the impressive All Saints Chapel shows how a century old structure was given new life and purpose for another century. The new chapel fits the site and blends beautifully with historic St. Charles Hall. The chapel reflects considerable thought, planning, craftsmanship, and the efforts of many to make it a reality. All Saints Chapel is a beautiful addition to the Carroll campus. The century-old building will also continue to provide a backdrop for many memorable stories.
Mike Shields is a retiree and serves as chair of the Helena/Lewis & Clark Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly “Nuggets From Helena” column in the Independent Record. Former Carroll College President Msgr. Joseph D. Harrington, as well as Tom McCarvel and Patty White, provided background information and their personal recollections about the old gym and its conversion for this column. Heather Navratil of Carroll's Corette Library supplied a copy of David McGoldrick's invaluable 1992 master's thesis on the early history of Carroll College. Kate Hampton of the Montana Historical Society Historic Preservation Office shared period newspaper links and photographs related to the original Carroll gymnasium.