The sheer size of the Cathedral of Saint Helena makes it one of the most recognizable churches in Montana. With a vaulted ceiling and two large spires, it looms over the surrounding buildings, prominent in the Helena skyline. The large church is also the only gothic-style cathedral in the state, its distinct architecture known for attracting tourists.
With the cathedral’s remarkable architecture comes a remarkable amount of history. In 1905 the building site was chosen by Bishop John Carroll. The architect, A. O. Von Herbulis of Washington D.C., was selected due to his extensive knowledge of European cathedrals, and the Columbia Construction Company of New York was hired to see Von Herbulis’ vision through. The cornerstone of the cathedral was laid in October 1908 and in November 1914 Helena’s Catholic community gathered at the unfinished church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper for the first time.
The church was christened the “Cathedral of Saint Helena” after the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. According to tradition, Empress Helena (also referred to as “Helen”) travelled to Syria Palaestina, a Roman province in the Holy Land, to establish churches and set up relief agencies for the poor in the year 326. On her pilgrimage, she discovered three crosses that were believed to have been used in the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. To test their authenticity, Empress Helena asked a dying woman to touch the crosses; she touched the first and second with no effect, but when she touched the third cross, her health was suddenly restored. Helena declared this cross to be the True Cross, the one upon which Jesus had hung. For this, the Catholic Church recognizes Helena as the patron saint of new discoveries.
Saint Helena is credited with having discovered numerous sacred relics throughout her journeys, but perhaps her greatest contribution to Christianity was her influence over her son, Emperor Constantine. Constantine was swayed by his mother’s piety to become the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Later, his role in the Edict of Milan brought about religious tolerance for Christians throughout the Roman Empire. This resulted in Christianity becoming more prevalent in Western society.
Given Saint Helena’s colorful history and considerable impact on Catholicism, it is unsurprising that the Cathedral of Saint Helena would choose to honor her as its namesake (although the cathedral’s location surely influenced that decision).
The Cathedral of Saint Helena’s construction was not completed until 1924, more than fifteen years after building had started; however, the impressive structure was worth the wait. White marble altars, hand carved oak pews, and dozens of stained glass windows contributed (and continue to contribute) to the church’s grandeur. It was a great shame then, when in 1935 a series of earthquakes struck Helena, damaging the cathedral. The south tower was almost completely destroyed and took several years to reconstruct.
Strong in its faith and its mission, the Cathedral of Saint Helena endured the catastrophe and has continued to serve Helena’s Catholic community to this day. The church also supports numerous organizations that help the poverty- stricken in Helena (following in the footsteps of Saint Helena).
Among the many programs that the church upholds is the Good Samaritan Thrift Store. This Catholic charity provides services to meet the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of individuals and families of all faiths. Its mission is to advance family life, human dignity, and the common good.
The church’s devotion to its fellow man, coupled with the building’s remarkable structure, make the Cathedral of Saint Helena both figuratively and literally a beacon in the community, one that continues to captivate believers and nonbelievers alike.