By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
The stained-glass windows at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church unassumingly brighten the brick building’s striking, 119-year-old core.
On sun-packed days, the windows produce golden sparkles inside the downtown Pine Street church. Ordinary glass windows were in place when Mass was first held in the A.J. Gibson-designed church back on October 9, 1892.
The clear panes were substituted for stained-glass over a century ago (pre-1910), in an attempt to guard from sunlight the church’s magnificent frescos, painted by Brother Joseph Carignano, an untrained artist who worked as a cook at a nearby mission.
When the church opened decades ago, the murals were no less impressive. Their story interweaves a tale stretching back as early as 1841 – the year St. Mary’s Mission was established in the Bitterroot Valley by Jesuit fathers fulfilling the instruction of American bishops to extend their religion to Native Americans. For years, settlers in the Missoula Valley had even petitioned the Jesuits for pastoral attention. These Catholics contracted their diocesan authorities who, in response, established a Jesuit Church in Missoula in 1881.
On August 9, 1891, the Jesuits laid the cornerstone for what was then the largest church constructed in Montana. Within a decade, thanks in large part to the work of Father Alexander Diomedi, S.J., the Jesuits established the new parish as a significant community focal point.
St. Francis Xavier Church is spatially integrated, understated, and harmonious. Humbler than Helena’s imposing Cathedral, there is fluidity to the art and architecture.
Nave arcades link by a barrel vault ending in the half-dome above the apse. A cornice crowning the arcade span in a steady line around the semicircular apse in the fashion of sixteenth-century Baroque churches creates a more united space by joining sanctuary and congregation.
The building’s architecture is highlighted by the unique expression of Carignano’s effort; his artwork vividly details Christian beliefs to a community of Catholics who are distant from the center of Catholic worship.
Thanks to these murals, the church’s interior solidified a visual catechism and a celebration of faith, a cohesive vision in a congruous composition.
Brother Joseph Carignano, S.J., who was thirty-nine in 1892, painted the church walls with religious similes, a pictorial study of scripture stories and symbols of the liturgy. His intent was to inspire people to imitate the lives of the saints and reflect on the teachings of Jesus. Cargignano may have been invited to St. Francis by Father L.B. Palladino, noted author on Indian/White relations in Montana, who served as pastor for many years. (The bell in the steeple is dedicated to Palladino.)
The paints Brother Carignano selected transformed the interior of St. Francis Xavier interior into a place like no other the congregation in the five valleys: A heavenly realm, a congenial contrast to the drab winter light of a frequently overcast valley.
To enter the great brick church, where ornate gilt scroll work on walls and capitals reflect rays of light, is to step into a sparklingly brilliant remembrance of the harsh existence of early Rocky Mountain West life. It stands as a testament to a time when Jesuits were giants and their steadfast devotion to their faith was palpable.
Carignano’s paintings may also be viewed inside St. Ignatius Mission, a landmark Roman Catholic mission founded at its present in 1854 by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and Father Adrian Hoecken. That mission was built between 1891 and 1893, a simplified, vernacular example of Gothic revival architecture constructed of bricks made from native clay.
While the backdrop is splendid, the most exceptional features of the interior are the 58 murals painted by Brother Joseph Carignano. Regarded today as an accomplished artist, his art still summons for a more comprehensive evaluation.
Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, will be released this summer.