Rocky Boy's St. Mary's Church burns to the ground

 

December 16, 2019

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Pews bend and warp from the heat as St. Mary's Catholic Church burns on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation Saturday. The fire was called in at about 10:21 a.m. As of 1 p.m. volunteer firefighters had gained control of the fire. The church is considered a total loss.

St. Mary's Catholic Church, a historic landmark on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, was considered a complete loss after flames consumed the structure Saturday. 

The fire started Saturday morning, Rocky Boy Volunteer Fire Department Chief Calvin Jilot said. He added that the volunteer fire department receiving a call at 10:21 a.m. and responded shorty after the call was made. He added that the initial report stated that the fire had originated in the kitchen of the church and quickly spread throughout the entire building. 

He said that his crew had a fast response time to the fire but because of the large amount of flames and the electricity inside of the church entering the building was not an option.

"My guys did exactly what they were trained to do," he said. "... There was nothing we could do for it."

In addition to Rocky Boy Volunteer Fire Department, crews from Wildland Fire Preparedness and Suppression Agency, the Chippewa Cree Tribe Natural Resources Department and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Box Elder aided in fighting the fire, Jilot said.


He added that Rocky Boy had five 300 gallon pump trucks and one 1,500 gallon pump truck DNRC had brought three trucks to provide water and also provided a water source for Rocky Boy's engines, because the church had no hydrants in the area. Rocky Boy also has 12 to 15 volunteers helping fight the fire.

Jilot said at about 1 p.m. that the fire was under control. He added that Hill County Electric Cooperative disconnected the power to the building and for the next few hours of the day Rocky Boy firefighters would be working on cleaning up and putting out hot spots.

Father Joseph Tran, the pastor of St. Mary's Church who lives next to the church, said Sister Margaret Mary O'Doherty first saw the fire and reported it. At the time of the fire, Tran said, he was in the mountains with another member of the church cutting down a tree for Sunday mass, and after O'Doherty called him they rushed down from the mountain to the church. 


He said that it is a large loss.

Services will be held for the time being at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Box Elder, he said. The two congregations will come together during this time to hold services.

Michael Ley, who was the lead contractor for the church when it was first built in 1979, said the loss of the church is a significant loss to the community. He said that in 1979, the community of Rocky Boy came together to build the church, adding it was the only church in the area which was built by an entire community. 

St. Mary's was built because the old church, which was at the same location, was very old and decrepit, he said. The original church was built in 1914 and was originally located in Hingham. It was moved to Rocky Boy in the 1960s It did not have any insulation and was in very poor condition, Ley said.

The community then came together and, in 1979, the tribe gave permission for 200 trees to be cut down on the reservation to use to build the church, he said. The church was entirely constructed using those 200 logs. The church was completed just in time for Easter Sunday Mass in 1980.

"This was a gathering center for Sunday mass, funerals, weddings, ceremonial celebrations," Ley said. "It was a community building used for anything that anybody wanted to use the building for, it was open to the whole community."

Father Pete Guthneck, who retired from being St. Mary's pastor last year, said that the lumber was milled in Warrick and every part of the church was built by the community. Guthneck started at the church in 1977. He said that although the physical church is gone, the church and what it stood for still stands.


"It's just a space," he said. "Out of the ashes will come something new."

He said building a church is the easy part, it's getting people together which is always a challenge.

Ley said that although the fire was tragic and the loss of the church is terrible, it is not the end.

"It means we start over," he said.

He added that he is still a contractor and, although it is too early to say anything, the community still needs a church. He doesn't know what will happen next he hopes the community is willing to reconstruct the church and build it like they did in 1979, he added.

"I would love to see the community pull together like they did 40 years ago and put the building back up the way it was," he said.

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

The entrance to St. Mary's Catholic Church burns on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation Saturday. The fire was called in around 10:20 a.m. and as of 2:00 p.m. volunteer firefighters have gained control of the fire. The church is considered a total loss.

 

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