St Paul’s Catholic Mission, Hays, MT


St. Paul’s Mission, Hays, March 1984

A basic goal of the 1984 survey of Montana was to have a greater understanding of the built environment of Montana’s Indian Reservations, especially those in northern central and eastern Montana, which had little acknowledgement from historic preservationists and architectural historians.  For me in 1984, that trek began when I came to Hays, in the Fort Belknap Reservation,  south and east of Chinook.  As the photo above suggests, I arrived on a cold winter afternoon, and was immediately awed by the simple yet direct beauty of the stone St. Paul’s Mission.  Built in 1898, this Gothic style building replaced earlier log buildings used by the Jesuits as they worked with Gros Ventre and Assinniboine Indians, who owned the reservation, to establish the community of Hays.


St. Paul’s Mission, summer 1988

When the Jesuits arrived in this country they were struck by its beauty.  Father Frederick Eberschweiler said in 1886:

“The cattle country with grazing land: the best I ever saw. Timber: that whole mountain range is thickly covered from the bottom to the top of the mountains. Water: seven beautiful creeks, running into the Milk River, clear as crystal, sweet as honey. Cultivating land: at all the creeks, but especially at “Peoples Creek”; at least 15 miles long remaining near the mountains is a deep, wide valley of the best garden-land, enough to make the whole tribe here very rich and happy.”



Peoples Creek is at the heart of Hays, and this land remains cattle country as the two overviews above suggest.  Hays is small but tight-knit, proud of its school (and its basketball), and friendly.  When I first visited in 1984, Fr. McMeel visited with me for a long time.  

Image Image

He considered himself a newcomer too (he arrived in 1978 from Alaska and became pastor in 1979) so we shared a bit about how a southerner and a westerner could meet at such a sacred place. He insisted that I call him Father Barney. He was clearly devoted to the mission, and its community.    

His devotion is memorialized in a historical marker on the drive to the mission church, which is still in great shape, obviously benefiting from careful stewardship over the decades.  I visited on Memorial Day weekend, where the church was the backdrop for a ceremony in honor of the generations of Ft Belknap residents who had served their people and their country.




Another architectural beauty at Hays is the shrine, Our Lady of the Rockies, built in 1931 by Father Feusi and Tom Flack, a German stonecarver.  Another Gothic style building, reflecting a church from Feusi’s native Switzerland, the chapel is used for memorial services every May.

Hays is only a small yet significant part of the Ft Belknap Reservation–next we move north to Harlem and return to our explorations along the Montana Hi-Line.


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