All communities have a refuge. It might be a senior center, a local cafe or tavern, a church—somewhere that people can go for companionship and help, if they need it. For over 168 years, St. Ignatius Mission Parish has been that refuge for the Mission Valley community.
“We’ve been active the entire time,” says Father Victor Cancino of the historic church. “It is a welcoming place, here to meet the spiritual needs of all people.”
Established in 1854, the St. Ignatius Mission was built to serve the Native American populations of the area, at the request of the Salish. Starting in 1831, several delegations of allied tribes were sent in search of “Blackrobes” (Jesuits), none of which were successful until 1839, when a final delegation of Salish encountered Father Peter De Smet in Iowa and convinced him to return to their homelands. So impressed was Father De Smet by their eagerness to receive “the great prayer” (Catholic Mass), that he returned to St. Louis and secured funding for the first missions in western Montana.
The original St. Ignatius Mission Parish was founded in 1845 near present-day Usk, Washington and relocated to the present location in Montana nine years later. Here, a town grew up around the mission, home to the first Catholic school, first industrial arts school, and first hospital in the state.
The original mission was destroyed in a fire, with the present church rebuilt in 1891.
To this day, St. Ignatius Mission Parish serves the Mission Valley community, including its tribal populations.
“Can you be Native American and Catholic? We believe the answer is yes. It’s my vision to find our way together in this valley,” says Father Cancino. “There’s a spirit of openness here.”
Beyond spiritual needs, the mission serves northwest Montana in a variety of ways. It works with the local chamber of commerce and area businesses to accomplish community projects and put on events.
It collaborates with the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee for interfaith cultural exchanges. It ministers with the Salish and Kootenai communities (when invited) to provide funeral services in conjunction with tribal customs.
“These are gifts we provide to our community,” says Father Cancino.
As it provides for its community, St. Ignatius Mission Parish also attracts visitors from outside the region to come and experience the Mission Valley. The mission’s history, architecture, and artworks make it a popular destination.
“One reason people come is to see our mural restorations,” says Father Cancino, referring to 58 artworks, originally painted by Brother Carignano in 1904-1905. “There’s a natural beauty and then you add this artistic treasure—it’s a badge of pride for the community.”
While much has changed since the nineteenth century, St. Ignatius Mission Church endures in its relevance.
“There have been ups and downs throughout its history, but we’re still here,” says Father Cancino. “We still serve the Mission Valley.”
St. Ignatius Mission Church is located at 300 Beartrack Avenue. For more information, visit stignatiusmission.org or call (406) 745-2768.