When the Rev. Donald Guthrie, 11th rector of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, was ordained in Scotland, he signed his name in a register that included every previous priest back to the 14th century.
After moving to Missoula in 1977, he would sometimes joke that “Montanans don’t have history – they have current events.”
Nevertheless, the church he served for almost two decades turns 100 this Christmas. Even an old Scot can acknowledge that as historic.
Age alone doesn’t make history. And a church is more than a building.
“Our sense of identity came as much out of the things that happened in the parish hall as in the church,” the Rev. Steve Oreskovich said. “What we were about in that building was creating a sense of community.”
Oreskovich led Holy Spirit for 29 years, one of just a dozen priests who’ve led the Missoula Episcopalian community since its founding in 1877. In that time, much of Missoula’s history has left imprints on the parish walls.
Episcopal Bishop Daniel Tuttle is credited with holding the first Protestant church service in Missoula on July 10, 1870 in the town’s Masonic Hall. That same summer, Sarah Woody, wife of Judge Frank Woody, started a Sunday school for children of all denominations.
It wasn’t until 1882 that the Episcopal community was large enough to build a frame chapel for its gatherings. A brick church replaced it in 1884 at the corner of Adams Street and Broadway (then known as Cedar Street). Its first service took place on Christmas Day.
“The people there were the people who built Missoula,” said Ty Robinson, at 99 a font of local history himself. “It was Andrew Hammond, and the Beckwiths, the McLeods, the Woodys. Frank Worden was a member.”
“When I was going to school here and living at the Kappa (Kappa Gamma) house, Mrs. Frank Keith was the house mother,” recalled Tomme Lu Worden, who married Frank Worden’s son Bill. “Catherine sat on the right side, second pew down.”
Those names also denote streets and buildings all over Missoula’s core. Many of those founders or their children were instrumental when Holy Spirit outgrew its original home and moved to its current spot at the corner of South Sixth Street East and Gerald Avenue. That took place on Christmas Day 1915.
“Sam Brimmer was the acolyte who carried the cross in the procession across the river from the old church to the new one,” said Judy Parock, who’s been Holy Spirit’s administrator for 29 years. “I knew him when he was on the vestry. It seems all the major events of my family life happened here. I remember holding my little brother when he was baptized, being the maid of honor at my sister’s wedding, both of my parents’ funerals were here, and they’re interred in the columbarium here.”
Photos of Holy Spirit’s new sanctuary show it in a very different Missoula. In 1915, the university district’s first maple trees were just saplings, and the towering spruce in the church courtyard wouldn’t be planted for another 10 years.
Robinson remembered a grocery store where Bitterroot Floral now stands, Missoula County High School (now Hellgate High) and little else in the neighborhood.
But from its beginnings, the parish saw its job in pulling the community together, according to Holy Spirit vestry member and unofficial historian Bob Wattenberg.
“The register from 1882 reports the first holiday bazaar and festival put on by the church women,” Wattenberg said. “That’s still going on. And in 1890 it had its first spring rummage sale, which was its own form of outreach – they’d gather all this stuff and sell it to anyone who needed it for practically nothing. We still do that today.”
Holy Spirit’s new Gothic-style sanctuary wasn’t consecrated as a church until 1930, when a $5,000 gift from Carrie Bonner (widow of Edward Bonner, co-founder of the sawmill in namesake Bonner) paid off the mortgage. Parock noted that gift arrived right after the stock market crash of 1929 that started the Great Depression.
Music played a subtle role in church outreach as well. Holy Spirit claims to have the first “vested” choir in the city starting in 1893, presumably meaning its volunteer singers started wearing traditional red and white gowns instead of street clothes.
Worden and Robinson both recalled the dance classes held in Holy Spirit’s parish hall in the 1950s. And in 1969, John Ellis came to play the organ.
Ellis was a nationally renowned player and teacher, both as Holy Spirit’s music director and as a professor at the University of Montana for 23 years. His death of AIDS complications in 1992 helped many in the Missoula community personalize a disease that was shrouded in social controversy at the time.
His Bach recitals, and the organ teaching he passed on to dozens of current church organ players, left a lasting legacy. The John Ellis Memorial Fund at UM continues to support new organ students.
And his replacement, Nancy Cooper, also filled his bench at the UM School of Music. Anyone who’s heard UM’s carillon play over the campus in the past 40 years was probably listening to either Ellis or Cooper.
Cooper got to fulfill a dream Ellis fostered when she oversaw the replacement of Holy Spirit’s 1915 Austin organ with a modern Bond instrument in 1999. Few knew that Ellis’ Sunday performances depended on him spending Saturdays repairing it. Now, organ masters from around the nation regularly come to Missoula to perform on the Bond.
A memorial fund committee founded in 1972 gave Holy Spirit another way to get involved. Initially used for improvements to the church building and its grounds, it soon became a way of supporting activities far from Sixth and Gerald.
“We had these luncheons for the business people downtown to explain the purpose of the Missoula Food Bank again and again and again,” Oreskovich said. A special collection envelope in the pews raised between $2,000 and $3,000 a year for the Food Bank, and an extra push helped the institution retire the debt on its Third Street headquarters.
Partnership Health Clinic has benefited from a more personal touch. Around 2000, Holy Spirit members decided to focus volunteer efforts on the nonprofit community health clinic. They’ve sent teams to assist victims of destructive hurricanes in the United States, the Philippines and Honduras. A group of volunteer teachers is currently in Myanmar working with English language classes.
“People have always known this church as a ‘social justice’ sort of church,” current rector the Rev. Terri Grotzinger said. Member Juliette Gregory was Missoula’s first female mayor, and Holy Spirit saw the ordination of one of the U.S. Episcopal Church’s first female priests when the Rev. Chris Steele was made assistant rector in 1980.
When local tensions with Muslim students over an incident at a sandwich shop arose in 2007, the congregation arranged several dinners with international students and Missoula residents to talk about religious understandings.
“It may be, as Donald (Guthrie) says, that we’re still in our infant stages,” Grotzinger said. “But the church here has its unique fingerprint. It’s rewarding to be called to a place with a lively parish that remembers the past while moving forward.”