St. Ignatius - Guardian of the Mission Mountains


Mark Spero with Stephen Pelletier


St. Ignatius sits in the southern reaches of the lush Mission Valley and is watched over by the towering Mission Mountains.  A humble town with a rich backstory, the establishment of St. Ignatius in 1854 predates Montana’s statehood, its origin story gave the Mission Mountains their name. nd its influence on the developing culture reflects the settling of America’s wild west.  Today the town is a nationally recognized historical site for its importance to the modern social beginnings of the region.


Before Europeans entered the area, the Flathead and Mission valleys were home the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Orielle peoples.  These tribes lived and hunted in the area of what is now St. Ignatius and were able to thrive from the plentiful resources provided by the mountains and wetlands.


One of the earliest white settlements in the valley was the trading post Fort Connah, opened in 1846. It was the southernmost post of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Founded in 1670, this company spread across North America in search of fur, establishing villages and engaged with native peoples in the process.  The fort was active until 1871. Today one of the original buildings is still in place and stands as the oldest building in Montana.


Jesuit priests Pierre-Jene De Smet, Peter McGean and Andrew Hoecken developed the original St. Ignatius Mission during the winter of 1844-45 in Idaho near Lake Pend d'Oreille. However unfavorable circumstances caused them to move their ministry to its current location,

Upon reaching the chosen location, Fr. Hoecken said, I arrived at the place designated on the 24th of September and found it such as it had been represented--a beautiful region, evidently fertile, uniting a useful as well as pleasing variety of woodland and prarie, lake and river--the whole crowned in the distance by the white summit of the mountains, and sufficiently rich withal in fish and game. I shall never forget the emotion of hope and fear that filled my heart, when for the first time I celebrated Mass in this lovely spot, in the open air, in the presence of a numerous band of Kalispels, who looked up to me, under God, for their temporal and spiritual welfare in this new home.”

Like the rest of Montana, settlements grew exponentially once they got started.  In 1854, Father Peirre-Jene De Smet founded the St. Ignatius Mission.  De Smet, a Jesuit priest, had spent much of his life converting native people to Christianity, and his charisma and openness to learning native belief systems made him very successful.  He had previously set up the St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville.


De Smet named the mission after Ignatius of Loyola, who was one of the founders of the Jesuits.  He was born in the 15th century and was originally a soldier in Spain.  St. Ignatius wanted his sect of Catholics to focus on doing good works in the world, rather than leading monastic lives.  He died in 1556 and was canonized as St. Ignatius in 1609.


With the mission in place the town, that began in an area advised by a Salish Chief grew.  Native people came to work with the Jesuits.  A church and school were soon built, some of the first in Montana, and practically guaranteeing the survival and importance of the town.  Though enrollment in the mission school, especially of native children, decreased during the first half of the 20th century, the church remained functioning.  Over the years it has survived fires, low attendance, and other problems, but it has always been built back better. The current structure was built in 1891and expanded in 1893.


One distinctive aspect of the St. Ignatius Mission Church is its 58 original paintings on the ceilings and walls.  Created by Brother Joseph Carignano, some of the art depicts Christian imagery mixed with representations of the Salish belief system. 


In 1919 a large forest fire destroyed almost the entire town.  The only buildings left standing were a bank, a store, and a hotel. The church’s location a bit west of the center of town escaped the blaze.  Even with most of the town gone, residents rebuilt, and were even able to update it by building a standalone hospital, separate from the mission.


Today, St. Ignatius is within the Flathead Reservation, and southwest of Highway 93.  It is in close proximity to many important Montana locations, including Flathead Lake, Missoula, and the National Bison Range.  With a population that has hovered around 800 since the 1940s, the town has lived a quieter life since its early days.  But St. Ignatius still strives to connect residents with the past.  For the past few years, local middle schoolers have learned the stories of people who have lived in St. Ignatius for decades, so students can help keep these stories, and histories, alive.


St. Ignatius has been a hub for native people since its beginnings, and its spectacular natural surroundings have played no small part. And often referred to as a miniature Glacier National Park, the ice sculptured Mission Mountain’s southern reaches are an integral part of the St. Ignatius community.


Abruptly rising above town, the Mission Mountains, St. Ignatius eastern flank, soar upwards nearly 7,000 feet in in less that 10 miles from the valley floor, ranking this area as having of one the greatest reliefs in Montana. The community’s elevation is 2,940’ and McDonald Peak at 9,824’ is the highest pinnacle in the Missions. Twelve other summits exceed 9,000’.  These peaks hide numerous waterfalls and tarns, glacial formed lakes, which are fed by the high up permanent snow fields.  Two of the best-known waterfalls are the Elizabeth and Mission Falls, which both send water down a 1000-foot drop.


Western parts of the Mission Mountains, about 89,500 acres, that are on tribal lands were designated a Tribal Wilderness Area in 1979 by The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.  This is the only Tribal Wilderness in the nation designated by a tribe. In the words of the Mission Mountains Committee, “These mountains belong to our children, and when our children grow old, they will belong to their children.  In this way and for this reason these mountains are sacred.”  The Tribal Wilderness borders areas of the range managed by the USFS as the 70,000-acre Mission Mountains Wilderness providing a large, protected environment.


A 12,000-acre segment of the tribal wildlands are closed from mid-July to October to protect the grizzly bear population as they feast on migrating army cutworm moths who land on the slopes of McDonald Peak and other adjacent summits.


Home to mountain goats, deer, elk, moose, coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcats, lynx, mountain lions, owls, eagles, and osprey, to name some species, the Missions provide outstanding high-country wildlife habitat. 


In addition, the area contains a variety of deciduous trees and alpine evergreens.  The range is also covered with bushes of the coveted huckleberry, a decadent rarity outside of Montana but a home-grown favorite for locals, especially grizzly bears. Aside from these plants and mammals of this uplift, the Mission Mountains are also home to a few varieties of trout and other aquatic life, contained within many of the freshwater lakes and streams throughout the range.


West of St. Ignatius is the National Bison Range, founded on reservation land in 1908 by the federal government.  It began with bison from the reservation’s herd, started in the 1800’s, when the bison were nearing extinction.  Today the National Bison Range is co-managed by The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the USFS, but they are planning on transitioning to complete tribal control. At nearly 19,000 acres, the range has allowed bison to thrive, and though the range’s history is wrapped up in the chronicles of stealing native land, recent years have seen joint efforts between the tribes and the state and federal governments to continue preserving bison in their natural habitat.  The range now works on educating the public on the importance of bison to native peoples.


St. Ignatius is east of the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge. It was established in 1929, and ceded to the tribes in 1948, who now manage the protection of this area, along with using some of the water to irrigate other parts of the reservation.  Primarily made up of small pockets of wetlands and the Reservoir, the refuge is home to waterfowl, including mallards, northern shovelers, gadwalls, redheads, and ruddy ducks.  The reservoir is an important breading area for a large contingent of the Flathead Valley Canada Goose population.  Bird watchers can also spot great-blue herons and double-crested cormorants, along with white pelicans during the summer.


After over one and a half centuries of white settlers in St. Ignatius, the small community has created closer, friendlier relationships with communities near them.  And all peoples in this area of the Flathead and Mission Valley are collaborating to protect wildlife that lives in the low wetlands, the Mission Mountains, and everywhere in between.  St. Ignatius is deeply enmeshed in the history of Montana, and the residents continue the important effort of maintaining our oldest buildings and longest memories.



Mark Spero is a University of Montana graduate student and editor of UM’s This is Montana program

Stephen Pelletier is a Senior majoring in Biology, with two disciplinary certifications in Secondary Education for Sciences, including Mountain Studies.