Immaculate Conception Church
The bright white facade of this stunning church prominently located beneath Big Butte, serves as a beacon proclaiming the heart of Butte’s west side Catholic community. The Immaculate Conception Parish was created from the overflowing St. Patrick and St. Lawrence O’Toole parishes in 1906. The original church buildings also included a convent and school. The cornerstone of the present church was laid on December 10, 1939. It indicates that the church, dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God, is also designated a shrine to Our Lady of Victory and St. Therese. Noted architect John G. Link designed the Butte landmark, completed in 1940 at a cost of almost $200,000, which features an unusual blend of the Mission Revival and Art Deco styles.
The Immaculate Conception Church Building – A Description from 1941
On Sunday, August 31, The Montana Catholic Centenary Observance will officially come to a close with the dedication of the majestic church of the Immaculate Conception in Butte. In the presence of a large concourse of ecclesiastical dignitaries and laity, the Most Reverend Joseph P. Gilmore, Bishop of Helena, will celebrate the Pontifical Mass. The sermon for this event will be delivered by the Most Reverend Henry P. Rohlman, Bishop of Davenport, Iowa. Because of the widespread interest displayed by all who have seen this new structure, it was thought that a better appreciation of its many distinctive features could be obtained from a detailed description of the entire building.
Impressive within and without, the “Church on the Hill”, as it is appropriately called, is situated on one of the highest eminences in the city of Butte. Approaching the Church across the valley from the south, which s perhaps the best view, it can be seen from a great distance standing forth in its vesture of immaculate white in striking relief against its somber mountain background. This reminds on of Our Immaculate Mother standing watch over the “City of Men” and guiding them to eternal happiness by the resplendent radiance of her manifold virtues. From Walkerville to the north=east a fuller view of the front can be obtained, and the roof of Spanish red tile visible from here give the church the effect of early mission churches. Whether viewed from afar or close at hand the spire, one hundred and thirty-five feet in height, catches the eye and holds the attention of the observer. Pointing heavenward, it seems to act as a lodestone drawing the minds of men to the One Who is worshipped within. It stands froth as a beacon of faith on the mountain top to guide the thoughts of more noble things and to provide them with a symbol that the “Light of the World” is visible to all who but open their eyes and look upon it. Many of us today may fail to realize the significance of such a tower. In our extreme age even church architecture and building is to prone to be influenced by modernistic styles, unmindful that a church must be different from other structures. We must not be unlike the people of old who contributed their best in skill and material to find the worthiest possible forms to express their devotion to Almighty God. We believe, however, that the hearts of men have not changed and that the august dignity displayed in the lines of the tower of the church will inspire deeper devotion. As the towers of medieval churches, it embodies visions and symbolized prayer. Because of it, people will gaze in admiration at a true house of God.
The modern design of the tower blends in with the architecture of the remainder of the building. The most primitive in Norman Gothic, the most modern i architectural development are incorporated in such a way that there is reflected an absolute honesty in the use of materials and the motives for the building. Any attempt at over-emphasized embellishment is avoided, and yet the creative designs introduced by the use of well executed geometric combinations give relief to any mere plain effect and endows the edifice with the aesthetic beauty required for a religious building. This geometric simplicity consonant with modern architecture is shown in the employment of circles, triangular figures, rectangular forms of various sized and clean straight lines. There is massiveness, but the precision in structural propriety removes any sense of preponderance and produces a church of constructive beauty which shows that steel and concrete can be adapted to present to our minds religious inspiration and spiritual ideals.
Measuring 156 feet in length, 80 feet in the transepts and 68 feet in the nave, the church will be able to accommodate over seven hundred people and can be used for the larger liturgical functions and ceremonies.
Although the greater part of the basement is not completed nor will it be by the time of the dedication, we shall include an account of the proposed plans and a word about the heating plant. The second door on the south side leads directly in the proposed mortuary chapel on either side of which is space that can be used as waiting rooms.
On the left of the mortuary chapel and about half-way down the long corridor is the room which will later become the winter chapel. The vesting room for the paraphernalia for the altar boys is at the end of this same corridor. Well equipped lavatories and the heating plant occupy the remainder of the basement. We will present a few of the facts about the heating and re-circulating system which not doubt is of interest to some. The building is equipped with a forced air circulating system with a capacity of making seven complete changes of air in an hour. This means that no matter how long the service the congregation will not be made uncomfortable by stuffy air, but will have fresh air at all times. It is self-controlled from a thermostat so that the air can be recirculated and so furnish fresh air from the outside. The same unit that controls the circulation of heat also takes care of the air-conditioning. The air for this feature is admitted from the outside through a large pendium chamber from which it is drawn by a huge fan and forced through the heat units. The intakes and exhausts are the grills which can be seen in the back of the church proper and in the walls of the transepts. There is also a small steam furnace controlled by thermostat for heating the organ loft, the sacristies and the basement. Gas is used for heating purposes.
The front entrance is reached from the lower street by a set of steps to a large outside plaza. The front doors as well as the others on the exterior are made of oak. Those on the inside as well as all the interior woodwork such as you will notice around the base of the columns and the sidings, is done in mahogany. The fixtures for the doors and other hardware are made of hammered brass. As you enter, the narthex, the excellently appointed baptistery will draw your attention. It is st off to the right and is visible through a wrought iron grille which has a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove worked in as a center piece. The baptismal font itself is composed of a solid marble shaft inlaid with tracery and lettering of marble. The dignity of the ceremony of this Holy Sacrament will be felt and realized to a greater degree in the new baptistery.
From the narthex you enter the main part of the church. The interior of the building conforms with the main architectural lines of the entire edifice which we discussed before. The straight lines predominate even in the arches. It is the pointed arch of the early Gothic style. All the pillars are square and stout being used as supports for the clerestory walls and the heavy beams of the ceiling proper. All the pews being between them, a perfect view of the sanctuary can be had from every part of the church.
We thought of describing the sanctuary and the other outstanding gestures that would strike the eye as the visitor entered the nave, but for greater clarity and in order to include all the details we decided to go through the whole church step by step. The floor is covered with an asphalt tile of durable quality and attractive color combinations; the field being in basket weave and the aisles in randium. The seating arrangement has been carefully worked out in order to give the greatest capacity and yet insure everyone with a comfortable place and an unobstructed view. The pews are of elm and the kneelers leather-cushioned. Besides using the center aisle, places in the pews, may be reached from the side by way of the ambulatories which extend the entire length of the nave on both sides. On the side walls of the ambulatories are the Stations of the Cross. They are of bronze finish with figures in bold relief. Directly above each station is an indirect hollowphane light. In the back part of the nave and just off the end of the ambulatories are placed two single confessionals which are sound-proof and equipped with audiophones for those who are hard of hearing. On the Epistle side near the front is a built-in double confessional. The operation of the confessionals is interesting. When the door of the confessional is opened a light goes on so that the penitent can find the kneeler without groping. This light goes out when the door is shut, and as the person kneels contact is made with a button underneath the kneeler causing a red light to go on outside above the confessional thus indicating that it is in use. When the middle light is on it shows that a priest is present in the confessional. The priest enters the confessional from the rear, unseen by the penitents.
Directly above the narthex is the rear gallery which can be used by choirs of mixed groups. On the Gospel side of the gallery is a glass enclosed, sound-proof room equipped with loud speakers for the convenience of mothers and infant children.
Special mention should be made about a few of the lighting and wiring features. Equipped with indirect lights throughout, the sanctuary presents the most satisfactory and up-to-date lighting available. Recessed in the pillars and ceiling of the sanctuary are several hollowphane lights which are hidden from view and so situated that they will illuminate the entire sanctuary. The lights in the nave area of the pendant lantern type in bronze and are hung from the ceiling by bronze treated chains. Many favorable comments have been passed by visitors on the selection of these fixtures. Besides the amplifiers in the “mothers room”, which we have mentioned above, there will be others in the nave of the church. Provisions are also being made for radio transmission both from the preacher’s lectern and from the main altar.
We shall now return to the description of the nave. The lower part of the ambulatory walls are a special plaster with travertine finish. The upper part of the walls, as well as the walls of the entire church, are finished with acoustic plaster done in buff and ornamented with white frieze. The ceiling is intersected with heavy steel beams encased in wood which are carved and polychromed to give relief to its appearance which otherwise might seem dull and unattractive. The light celatex panelling on the ceiling proper harmonizes well with the darker shade of the beams.
The beauty of the windows adoring the church truly defies description. They are entirely unique in the catalog of ecclesiastical art in this country. The glass is the imported Norman slab of rich live coloring, graduated from deepest blues, reds and golden ambers through all the lighter tones. The effect produced is such as only the pen of a Ruskin could approach. Unlike other church windows the figures and symbols are not painted. The shading is brought about entirely by the varying thickness of the glass and the outlines by the heavy irregular leading. The facade window tells the story of Cross Triumphant or the Tree of Life. The center motif is a Cross, 14 feet high, made of glass brick. The side panels are in colored glass. From this Tress springs the fruitage of the Saints, branching out from its base to remind us that it is from the Cross that holiness receives life and nourishment in grace. The symbols in the panels represent the different categories of the Saints: Mary, Queen of All Saints, the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors Pontiff, Confessors Non-Pontiff, Virgins, penitents and Holy innocents. The Cross being over the portal of the church suggests the entrance of the faithful to the means of sanctification and the source of the graces of the redemption through the Holy Sacrifice and the Sacraments. From the artistic point of view we might observe the contrast between the strong white light of the cross and the predominance of the deep colors surrounding it. The clerestory windows in the nave with the exception of the one dedicated to St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, and the one in honor of St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin, depict the Saints of modern times. On the south side they feature some of the representative men saints. Starting from the front of the nave they are St. John Vianney, popularly known as the Cure of Ars; St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin; St. John Bosco and St. Francis Xavier, patron of the Missions. The women, sainted and saintly are honored in the windows of the north side namely, St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier; Blessed Mother Cabrini; St. Joan of Arc, Kateri Tekakwitha; Blessed Gemma Galgani. The window in the south transept is a triple panel dedicated to Our Lady of Victory whose oratory will be erected later. The corresponding north transept will be devoted to the oratory of St. Theresa, the Little Flower if Jesus. The symbols and coats-of-arms represent in the ambulatory or side aisle windows are expressive the recent Popes, the Bishops of the Diocese of Helena and the religious Communities who are laboring in western Montana. In the rear of the sanctuary there is a large tri-panel window with the center panel dedicated to the Holy Spirit and those on either side symbolizing the Sacrament, through which He is the Sanctifier.
Of the main upper part of the church we have yet to tell about the sanctuary appurtenances. Here the culmination of the artistic grandeur and elegant symmetry of the entire structure is reached. One glance at the sanctuary is sufficient to impress the visitor that here is the important part of the church. The many other features of the building are new, distinctive and becoming, but the adornments of the sanctuary exceed all these in marked degree. Being 40 by 42 feet in size, it provides space in which the divine services can be carried out in all their details in a fitting manner and with the proper decorum. A wrought bronze and marble railing separates it from the body of the church. The top of the railing is a light Giallo Sienna marble and the square pilasters are made of Rosso di Grancia marble. Entrance to the sanctuary may be gained through the center gate and through the gates on the Epistle and Gospel sides. The floor is done in terrazzo, the designs be worked out in contrasting pastel colors of coral, green, silver blue and sienna. A blue glass field in which there is inlaid the symbol of the Holy Trinity in red glass forms the center motif. A delicate blending of color is made with the floor by the tranvertine finish of the lower part of the walls. The upper half of the walls is the same as the rest of the interior.
On the Gospel side of the sanctuary there is a place in the wall for the ambry or the repository for the holy oils.
The sanctuary lamp is of the standing type executed in wrought bronze with the monogram Chi Rho (XP) worked in the center.
Knowing full well that we cannot aptly explain in words the magnificence of the altars, we shall give a description of their construction and materials. The altar steps and the predella are of Cardiff green marble which as will be noticed is a darker shade than the green of the steps leading to the sanctuary floor. This gradual deepening of colors is carried out in the decorative scheme of the whole sanctuary. For those who are unacquainted with marble we might mention that the names which are used are generally taken from the places in which the marble is obtained. We will also include an interpretation of the colors: Cardiff green is of course green; Rosso di Francia is red; Paonazzo is streaked gray; Giallo Sienna is light brown or golden; Carrara is white and Bescaretto is grayish blue. The base of the main altar is Rosso di Francia above which are the frontal panels of the antependium in Paonazzo. An Agnus Dei, the “Lamb of the Apocalypse”, in Venetian mosaic of blue and gold tints form the frontal center piece. Carrara was selected for the mesa or table of the altar which rests on carved pilasters which are placed the candlesticks are called gradines and are made of Paonazzo. Well-appointed liturgical form is displayed in the dossal or the marble back piece which stands directly behind the altar. Of this part the pylons of Rosso di Francia and the center panels of light Giallo Sienna provide an attractive color combination that adds to the sublimity of the altar. The pylons are fluted and the scrolled caps also of Sienna have a modern wheat and grape design. In the middle of the dossal is placed the the gold-plated memorial monstrance which was constructed from the old gold and silver donated by parishioners and others. It will be a permanent fixture set on a marble bracket extending about ten inches from the dossal. At Benediction the priest will take the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle, walk around the altar and place it in the monstrance. The excellent craftsmanship in wrought bronze of the tabernacle furnishes the church with a central point upon which the eyes of all will be easily focused. Suspended from the ceiling by bronze treated chains is a covering known as a tester which extends over the altar. It is of wood and polychromed.
Because of their similarity to the main altar a brief word will suffice for the two side altars. The St. Joseph altar occupies the Epistle side and that of the Blessed Mother the Gospel side. The mensa of both is the carrara marble and the panels of the antependiym are of Paonazzo. As a center-piece for the antependium the monograms S.J. and A.M. done in Venetian glass mosaic of blue and gold are used. The statues are the restrained modern type and are made of Gotticina, a buff marble.
Directly behind the main altar and elevated is the gallery for the Vested choir, which can accommodate one hundred people. It is screened from view by wrought bronze grill, in the center of which is attached a large bronze crucifix. The organ chambers occupy the rooms to the left of the choir. The door to the left of the sanctuary leads to the priests’ sacristy, and the one directly behind the altar is the entrance to the boy’s sacristy. Both of these rooms are large and fully equipped with the necessary cabinets. Of interest to the visitor might be the small bowl with the chrome cover in the priests; sacristy. This a sacrarium and is used as a basin which the sacred linens are washed. We believe that this will be an adequate explanation and description of the main part of the church.
This new church is erected in honor of Our Lady of Victory and St Therese of the Child Jesus and is the fulfillment of the ambition and dreams of the present pastor, Monsignor Willging, the Vicar General of the Diocese. Through his untiring effort and the loyal cooperation of parishioners and friends there now stand s in the Immaculate Conception Parish a monument of living faith, a visible expression of an interior worship that is certainly pleasing to Almighty God. By their hands, they have s to speak, taken the talents that He has bestowed upon them and molded them into a home in which He might dwell among them As the light of each succeeding day filters through the huge cross in the front of the Church it will come to rest on the tabernacle home of the “Giver of All Good Gifts” seeming to remind us again that through the Cross we are led to the celestial abode of Christ where we all hope to spend our eternity.
Written by Reverend James P. Dowdall, circa 1941.