One of the most visible icons of our great city is the Cathedral of Saint Helena. The word “cathedral” comes from the Greek word cathedra, meaning “seat of the bishop.” The Cathedral was built by the Columbia Construction Company of New York, with the laying of the cornerstone on Oct. 4, 1908 by Bishop John Patrick Carroll. Carroll was the second bishop of Helena, who was known as a builder and educator from Dubuque, Iowa. The first Bishop, John Baptist Brondel, proposed to name the Cathedral St. “Helena” for the Diocese of Helena and the lower level of the Cathedral bears his namesake as the Brondel Center. Bishop Carroll also founded Mt. Saint Charles College which we all know today as Carroll College, in 1909 he and President William Howard Taft laid the cornerstone of Saint Charles Hall.
The building was funded with the generous help of a donor named Thomas Cruse, who struck his riches in 1868 while mining near Marysville, Montana. Cruse contributed one-third of the total cost to build the beautiful structure that is now located in the heart of Helena. Other large donations came from T.C. Power and Senator Thomas Walsh. The land where the Cathedral sits was purchased in 1905 with the total construction cost at the time being $645,000, which would be around $18 million in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, Cruse would not live to see the completion of the cathedral, and the first funeral to be held inside the partially completed Cathedral would be his own in 1914.
The Cruse family Mausoleum bears a striking resemblance to the Cathedral in the Resurrection Cemetery on North Montana Avenue. Though Cruse himself was from County Cavan in Ireland, the architect for the cathedral was Albert O. Von Herbulis, who modeled his design off the Votivkivche (Votive Church) in Vienna, Austria, which was built in 1856. The Cathedral was named in honor of Saint Helena. Around 326 A.D. Saint Helena made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, here she later would be the inspiration for the building of numerous churches, specifically, one in Bethlehem on the reputed site of the Nativity, and the other the Chapel of the Ascension located on Mount Olive, Jerusalem. During her pilgrimage it is believed that Helena found Christ’s true cross, leading to the story of the “Invention,” or finding of the cross.
The Helena Cathedral is cruciform in shape signifying the holy cross with the main entrance facing west. The congregation in pews typically prays toward the east or what is known as the direction of the coming of Christ. The exterior is finished in detail with six statues over the west entrance that depict St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Paul, Rev. Father and St. Damien and St. Joan of Arc.
There are twin spires which rise to 230 feet above the street. Each spire has a cross that stands 12 feet in height and 6 feet in length. The north tower has 15 bells which represent the 15 mysteries of the rosary. The interior features high ceilings with stained glass windows handmade by Bavarian artisans depicting Biblical stories such as the Fall of Adam and Eve and the Last Supper. Thirty-seven of the 56 windows were made and installed by the Franz Xaver Zettler firm out of Munich, Germany. The remainder of the windows which were installed in the upper portion of the cathedral were done by Charles J. Connick, a craftsman from Boston. The pews are hand-carved out of oak originally stained dark brown. During the 1958-1959 renovation the pews were bleached a light driftwood color. Though greatly damaged in the 1935 earthquake, the altars and statues decorating the interior throughout are made of Carrara marble which was quarried in the province of Massa and Carrara in what is now the tip of modern-day Tuscany, Italy. The building holds 29 pure Carrara marble statues of historical persons from the arts, sciences, and religion. The light fixtures are made from hand forged bronze and the interior walls are finished with authentic gold leaf detail. The 1935 earthquake almost completely demolished the south spire which was rebuilt and completed by 1938.
The Cathedral went through vast renovations in 1959 in time for the “Golden Jubilee” 50th anniversary. Another renovation would happen in 1982-83 addressing the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, and an additional renovation took place in 2002 which included the sanctuary, Saint Joseph's Chapel, a new baptistry, and the installation of an elevator in the north transept. A train-wreck in 1989 caused an explosion near Carroll College which severely damaged many of the interior columns which were repaired in 1999-2000.
The Cathedral’s durability has been tested throughout the years. People from all over the world, of all faiths, come each year to this truly amazing structure that graces our beautiful city here in Helena, Montana.
Patrick Rieley is a Helena educator and historian who did his graduate work at The National University of Ireland, where he received his MA in history. He wrote this for the Lewis and Clark Heritage and Tourism Council, which provides the monthly “Nuggets from Helena” column in the Independent Record.
Postcards show what Helena looked like 100 years ago