During the nineteenth century, Catholic priests and Ursuline nuns traveled to the Western United States in order to preach their religion to Native peoples. Facing many challenges, they often found the West’s landscape unforgiving. St. Peter’s Mission was no different. One of Montana’s first Catholic missions built for the Native Americans, St. Peter’s was plagued by problems from the beginning.
While only a small, white wooden frame church is all that remains of the St. Peter’s Mission today, when it was first built, the Mission was an arresting stone structure bustling with students, nuns, and priests. Constructed under the direction of Father DeSmet—who is believed to have baptized the first Blackfoot in the area—St. Peter’s mission faced severe trials almost instantly. In order to survive, the Jesuits and Blackfoot had to rely on farming. The Blackfoot agreed to move their lodges nearer to the mission to farm, but never received the agricultural supplies they were promised. The Jesuits lacked supplies as well. Some have described St. Peter’s early years as a lingering existence of a prolonged agony.
After a decade of trying to survive, the Jesuits regrouped and decided to focus their efforts on growing the mission. They built a school for white and Native American boys and tried more earnestly to conquer the landscape. However, a deadly winter famine brought starvation and hardships. Despite the harsh conditions, the boys’ schools began to be successful, and the Jesuit priests resolved to begin a girl’s school as well. Calling on the formidable and admirable Ursuline Mother Amadeus Dunne for help, soon the Ursulines had created a small school for young Indian girls.
The Ursuline nuns were not immune to the difficult environment, and they too struggled between survival and trying to make the mission prosper. Receiving little to no financial help from their eastern counterparts, the Ursulines were barely subsisting when the Jesuit priests decided to abandon the Mission. The Ursulines then had a choice on whether or not they too would abandon the mission. When two ravaging fires destroyed many of the buildings, the decision was made for them. St. Peter’s Mission was abandoned—a stark reminder of the Catholic missionaries’ lonely battles with the Western terrain.