St Francis Upper

Before Billings Catholic Schools can sell St. Francis Upper, the church will have to contact 434 heirs to the property.

Gazette Staff

Billings Catholic Schools wants to sell its former middle school building. It just has to get permission from 434 potential stakeholders.

A peculiar deed on the former site of St. Francis Upper, signed nearly 100 years ago, led attorneys to identify hundreds of people who might have a small claim on the property. The people are descendants of those granted interest in the property a century ago.

Though Billings Catholic Schools used the site as a school for that time, legal procedure requires notice to everyone involved before the building can be sold.

“We’re just trying to get a clear title so we can sell it and help pay for the new school,” said Janyce Haider, president of the Billings Catholic Schools Foundation.

The new school is St. Francis Catholic School, a roughly $15 million project that opened earlier this year out on Colton Avenue. It combines all pre-high-school grade levels under one roof.

But before that was built, the St. Francis Upper building housed sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students over on North 32nd Street. The church, now the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, obtained the land and built the school with a donation from a wealthy Billings widow.

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St. Francis Upper

Fratt Memorial Parochial School in downtown Billings, which opened in 1918, became St. Francis Upper School.

The donation had one condition.

“This deed is made upon the express condition that the lots in question are to be used as a site for a parochial school … ” according to the document.

If the building wasn’t used as a school, the deed said heirs and other stakeholders could gain interest. Through the courts, Billings Catholic Schools is seeking full ownership of the site in order to sell it and keep the money.

A deed is signed

Kate Fratt was one of the richest women in Montana in 1916, according to a report in The Billings Gazette at the time.

Her husband, David Fratt, owned a large cattle ranch near Lavina and was vice president of Yellowstone National Bank. They lived in a large home on North 29th Street, though it was later moved to 142 Clark Ave.

David Fratt died in 1912, and Kate Fratt took over the vast estate.

On Christmas Day 1916, Kate Fratt gave the Catholic Diocese the 12 lots she’d purchased for $15,000 on North 32nd Street, next to the St. Patrick Church.

“Her present gift shows that she understands the wise distribution of her surplus wealth in ways that will bring the greatest good to the greatest numbers,” according to The Gazette, which cited a “close personal friend” of Fratt’s.

Fratt also donated $75,000 toward the construction of the school, according to news reports at the time. Adjusted for inflation, the cumulative $90,000 gift would have been about $1.8 million today.

The deed was signed on Jan. 24, 1917, specifying that the site be used by the Catholic Diocese as a parochial school. It continued as the Fratt Memorial School and, later, St. Francis Upper. The agreement went on as intended for 99 years.

Fratt died in 1918. And while the site was a school, there were still legal heirs to the real estate.

The diocese laid out the situation in court documents filed on Aug. 28. Six entities had interest in the property. The church had one-sixth. The corporation owning St. Vincent Hospital had another one-sixth.

The rest of the shares went to Fratt’s siblings and, subsequently, their heirs.

Turning to the court

Now the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings has filed a court brief requesting full ownership of the site. Some stakeholders signed their shares over to the Diocese in 1987. They include the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, owner of St. Vincent Hospital, as well as shares for two of Fratt’s contemporary relatives.

But there are still hundreds of potential heirs. The Diocese’s court filing gives any of them legal notice in case someone wants to make a case for a stake in the property.

Haider said a Billings doctor interested in genealogy located 434 potential heirs to the Fratt building. They span five generations.

“It took her years to find all these people,” she said. “She started with two or three heirs that it was left to and started working down.”

The legal notice went out to 16 newspapers across the country, Haider said.

If nobody protests, the Diocese is asking a judge to grant full ownership of the property so Billings Catholic Schools can sell it. Haider said the money would go toward paying off funds still owed on the new school’s construction.

If the property can’t be sold, the Diocese also asks that the property can be used for “charitable purposes” benefitting the Catholic schools.

Haider said that if all goes well in the courts, they hope to move into a sales position by the end of the year. No court hearing has been set in the case, which was filed in District Court in Yellowstone County.

Whatever happens to the St. Francis Upper building, Haider said they hope to preserve the namesake in their new location.

“Our intent is to take Kate Fratt’s name to the new building,” she said.

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Reporter for The Billings Gazette.