Committee raising money to replace roof, preserve St. Lawrence

The 107-year-old painted faces of saints stare down on wooden pews in the cold stillness of the St. Lawrence O’Toole Church.

On the backs of those pews are the faded nameplates of parishioners who used to stand and lift their eyes toward the frescoed ceiling in song and prayer.

But now those pews are mostly empty, and the entire church and its frescos are jeopardized by a failing roof. Walkerville residents have formed the Save the St. Lawrence Committee with hopes to raise at least $40,000 and preserve one of the oldest and most ornately decorated churches in the area.

“I think (the church) really has meaning to the history of Butte and Walkerville,” committee member and Walkerville mayor John Ries said. “It was built with the miners’ money, and most of those guys were making a dollar a day. Yet they got together to build this church. And they got together again to have the frescos painted.”

Standing in the shadow of the Lexington head frame at the crest of North Main Street, the church was built for $25,000 raised through miners’ subscriptions in 1897 on land donated by the Butte and Boston Mining Co.

The ceilings of St. Lawrence are covered in beautiful frescos painted in 1906 by a European artist that depict numerous saints and scenes from the life of Christ. In its prime, the church served as many as 5,000 parishioners.

Awash in the emerald, goldenrod and lavender light that filtered through the stained glass windows Friday, Ries reminisced about attending the church with his family when he was a child.

“I remember the five of us sitting in a pew, always on the right side,” he said. “My parents were married in this church, and my mother’s funeral in 1985 was the last Catholic funeral in the church.”

In the choir loft where Ries used to sing stands a 1944 M.P. Möller organ that still bellows its notes over the railing and down to the pews below. The strength of those pipes and the colors of the frescos remain, though the congregation has gone.

The churchyard was also home to a rectory, which still stands, and the now-abandoned St. Lawrence parish parochial school.

The St. Lawrence Preservation Committee was formed in 1987 after the diocese in Helena slated the building for demolition.

There are no longer church services in the building. The committee rents it out for weddings and other gatherings to raise money for upkeep, but it’s simply not enough to replace the roof.

Ries said a roofer recently quoted him at least $40,000 for a roof replacement. A much-needed new heating system would cost another $5,000.

But Ries said that if the group can raise the money to make those repairs, the church will weather the next few decades beautifully. He’d also love to see the frescos touched up and repaired in places where damage has caused the plaster to fall off the ceiling.

Butte-Silver Bow historic preservation officer Jim Jarvis said the church has great significance to the Walkerville community.

“It has survived as a very intact, historical property here in Butte,” Jarvis said. “Because of its age I think it deserves special recognition and support from the community. It’s a landmark. It’s your quintessential wood-framed church prominently located within the community, which was once quite typical of the church’s role within the overall society.”

Jarvis hopes preservation groups or interested locals will step in and help the committee replace the roof.

“I’m impressed by (the committee’s) efforts to keep the church together, to keep an eye on it, to provide for its maintenance, to make it accessible to the community,” he said. “The community of Walkerville continues to survive and the church has been quite an anchor point, much like the mines yards of the Lexington and the Mountain Con. That makes it special.”

To donate to the project, send donations to Save the St. Lawrence Committee, 1137 Waukesha St., Butte, MT 59701, or contact John Ries at 782-4694.

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