ST. IGNATIUS — This town’s historic mission church draws plenty of visitors, and the Rev. C. Hightower makes them feel at home.
“You’re always welcome to God’s house,” he told about 60 visitors from the Midwest and Southeast, as they thanked him for showing them the St. Ignatius Mission’s century-old murals and frescoes. On the way out, one mentioned with a chuckle that they were Protestants. No matter: “God loves everyone,” the Jesuit priest said.
Hightower has welcomed visitors to this historic mission church since becoming its pastoral delegate nearly two years ago. That’s on top of celebrating weekly Mass and other sacraments, like marriage and baptism, coordinating a wide range of outreach activities, and overseeing the restoration of its famous artwork.
“I think the energy Hightower brings is incredible,” said Nancy Plant, the church’s office manager. “He’s done quite a bit in the short time he’s been here.”
Hightower’s journey to St. Ignatius spanned the globe, and began in 1992. As a recent college graduate, Hightower worked at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, “and just fell in love with what I was doing, and thought to myself, ‘How the hell can I do this for the rest of my life?’
"The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, made the most sense.”
After joining the Society, Jesuits undergo a years-long formation process. Hightower spent much of that period teaching. At one of these schools, Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma, he drew a lesson that would inform his work here.
“I was in charge of discipline in Mass,” he recalled. One day in 1996, he caught three students chewing gum, and was reading them the “riot act” afterward when the celebrating priest came over and asked what was happening.
After Hightower told him, that priest said, “You mean they were chewing gum at an optional Mass they weren’t required to attend.”
“I thought, ‘There are other things we could be working on. … If I just chew them out, they never come back.’”
Years would pass before Hightower could bring that insight to Montana. The Jesuits sent him to Gonzaga University, where he ministered to students, then to Sacramento, then to a far more distant post: Erbil, Iraq.
“I was looking for something to do” after the Sacramento mission was up, he remembered. Hightower already had experience working in the developing world, so he entered Jesuit Refugee Service.
By fall 2016, the war against the Islamic State had filled Erbil with refugees, and Jesuit Refugee Service had established a presence there. “These families have kids, and so these kids fall behind because they’re not in school,” Hightower said. He and the other aid workers “would find out what system they were using in the towns they were from, the areas they were from, and we would use those ” to keep them from falling behind.
Most of those receiving help were Muslim or Yazidi, not Christian, but “we weren’t converting,” Hightower said. “We were educating, we were feeding, we were housing, and so we were practicing our faith to the best we can.”
He couldn’t carry out this work in Iraq for long. In December 2016, ISIS attacked a nearby sulfur mine. The fumes made Hightower seriously ill, and he left to convalesce, ending up in Missoula. A few months later, the St. Ignatius Mission needed a pastoral delegate, and Hightower — who prefers using an initial instead of a first name — has filled the post since August 2017.
His role extends far beyond Sunday worship. “It’s an active Catholic Church, but it's also a community center.
“Some of the joys of the Mission Valley is that it is on the reservation so I have the honor of working with the Salish people,” he said. “It’s really a multicultural community.”
The Jesuits established the current mission here in 1854; it’s anchored this community ever since. That history has dark spots. In 2011, three local men received settlement funds for sexual abuse they endured here in the mid-20th century.
“There were crimes committed, and we have to be open and honest about that,” Hightower said.
"I talk a lot about right relationships, how to put ourselves in right relationships with each other and therefore with God...With the priest abuse scandal, some might say, 'Well, I'm not going to church because of that,' and my response would be, 'Well, that happened, it's a reality, but why would you let someone else's actions dictate your relationship with God? That's not fair to you, it's not fair to God, it's not fair to the community.'"
“I think you have to give people hope and you have to give them a sense of why they want to belong,” he continued. “You have to show them an investment, and for us that investment is certainly in prayer.”
That investment also takes the form of a church policy Hightower introduced, inspired by those gum-chewing students in Tacoma: No one over age 10 can shush anyone under age 10. “By allowing children to be themselves, we hope and desire that they will fill our pews in the years ahead,” state flyers stacked by the church entrance.
“Kids need to understand,” he said, “that church is a place of joy and happiness, not a place of punishment and being scared.”