By Brad Reynolds
It’s a splendid old building, the Ursuline Centre—64,000 square feet of brick and mortar, eight winged gargoyle waterspouts, four floors and a tower, adorned with terra-cotta coping and embellishments.
The iconic structure overlooking Great Falls’ Central Avenue has served the community since its opening on September 3, 1912. Hundreds must pass it every day, but how many stop to marvel at its beauty? Admire its history? Appreciate its mission?
The Ursuline Centre is no relic; it’s a venerable institution, alive and well. Children are educated here. Catholics attend mass. Guests—the spiritual and the secular—are ministered to. The Ursuline Centre serves the people as needed… in the tradition of those who established it more than 100 years ago.
The School & the Sisters
A blizzard savaged southeastern Montana (Territory) on January 18, 1884. On that day, Miles City was met with two forces of the Almighty—the winter storm and the Sisters of the Ursuline Order.
Six Ursuline Sisters (so named for Saint Ursula) arrived at the request of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Brondel, who had petitioned the Catholic Bishop of Ohio for their aid. (Due to the Indian Wars, the tribe of the Northern Cheyenne had been displaced, and the bishop reasoned it was the Christian thing to help them.)
Along their pilgrimage through Montana, the Sisters traveled west to Great Falls. It was the turn of the millennia and the city was flourishing, but what it noticeably lacked were quality educational facilities. Four city blocks were dedicated for the foundation of an Ursuline school here, with famed local architect George H. Shanley commanding its design.
Ursuline Mount Angela Academy served the Great Falls community for decades, but needs changed, and the educational landscape of Great Falls was evolving. In 1966, the Ursuline Sisters closed the academy. Praying for guidance, they explored alternative ways to serve the community with their magnificent facility.
A Legacy of Learning
The Heritage Museum and Heritage Gallery are located on the second floor of the Ursuline Centre, honoring the incredible history of the building and its founders. (Free tours are offered upon request.) The Heritage Museum houses a collection of original furniture, Native American gifts (given to the Sisters), period clothing, photographs, and historically significant items from when the school was open.
It isn’t hard to imagine how the facility served students in the past. Much of the building has maintained its historical integrity, and moreover, its classrooms are utilized by students today. The former Mount Angela Academy (which primarily served young women) is now a preschool.
“I feel the preschool is one of the crown jewels of the Ursuline Centre,” says Thomas Trunkle, Executive Director. “It provides the foundation of an excellent education.”
Trunkle’s own children attended the preschool prior to his employment at the Ursuline Centre. The facility’s educational and outreach programs are, in part, what drew him to the organization.
“The Ursuline Centre is always looking for new opportunities to educate and serve the community,” he says.
The Needs of the People
After the closure of Mount Angela Academy, some soul searching was necessary to determine where the Ursuline Sisters’ new mission lay. As they explored the needs of their community, they discovered that what Great Falls (and the whole of central Montana) could use was an affordable retreat center. A new ministry of hospitality was established, and the facility was rechristened the “Ursuline Centre.”
“This is a unique conference and retreat center in a unique and historic setting,” says Trunkle. “What makes it so wonderful is it’s all-inclusive. We have meeting rooms, break out rooms, a full service cafeteria, and accommodations to stay overnight.”
He goes on to elaborate that the Ursuline Centre’s comfortable, private, and historic dorm rooms can lodge up to 125 people. Guests have access to private showers, can utilize the facility’s wireless internet, and can prepare and store meals in a secondary guest kitchen. A comfortable dining room has seating for 100 guests, and the auditorium (with its two-tiered stage) can seat 220. A spacious gymnasium can be rented as well.
With a wealth of space and amenities, the Ursuline Centre is perfect for hosting retreats, wedding receptions, and get-togethers of all kinds. The facility also provides affordable temporary boarding to foreign exchange students, AmeriCorps volunteers, college interns, and others.
“As a nonprofit, we realize that there are individuals and organizations with limited budgets,” Trunkle explains. “We can host and facilitate a number of user groups at a reasonably low rate.”
Trunkle says that the Ursuline Centre’s affordability, huge campus, and central location all play a role in its success as a retreat center, but he believes the facility’s guests are drawn to its heritage as well.
“They have a respect and admiration for what this building represents,” he says.
And what does the Ursuline Centre represent?
Devotion. A commitment to God and to the people