The Rev. Benjamin Shuart had his work cut out for him when he arrived in Billings in April 1882.
Shuart helped found one of the three earliest churches the same year that the town named after Frederick Billings came into being. Billings was president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
It was just six years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and seven years before Montana became a state.
“At this early stage in the growth of Billings, the gambler, the dispensers of strong drink and women of the ‘red light’ were numerously represented in Billings and plied their several occupations, brazenly and without,” Shuart wrote in his memoir.
His reminiscences, jotted down in the 1930s, are included in “Our First One Hundred Years,” produced by First Congregational Church.
Shuart left Minneapolis for Billings on April 9, 1882, with a commission from the American Missionary Association of New York City. He was assigned to the Billings territory of Montana to establish a Congregational church.
From Miles City, the terminus of the railroad, Shuart proceeded to Billings via horse and buggy. When he reached his destination, he found the only completed wooden structure to be the headquarters of the engineering company engaged in constructing the roadbed of the incoming railroad.
The missionary was warmly welcomed, “and everybody I met seemed to be pleased with the prospect of having a church in Billings” he wrote. Even a gambler, who talked with Shuart when he walked past the man’s tent, gave his assent.
“During the conversation which ensued, he expressed an interest in our enterprise,” the missionary wrote. “And said ‘of course we gamblers know that churches are death to our business — but who would want to live in a town without a church in it?’ ”
Shuart held his first church service in an unfinished saloon. The seats were pine boards laid on top of kegs. His second gathering took place in an unfinished bakery.
It continued that way the first two months, until Shuart was able to raise enough money to erect a small building of rough lumber at what is now Third Avenue North and North 27th Street. The work was completed in one day, thanks to the combined efforts of the town’s carpenters and its citizens.
That same year, with a $10,000 donation from the wife of Frederick Billings, construction began at the same site on a larger, more elegant church building. Delays meant the building took 13 months to construct, and it was dedicated on Nov. 18, 1893.
An 83-foot steeple topped the building, with a weather vane poised at its peak. According to one historical tidbit, cowboys got drunk and they’d ride their horses down the road and try to shoot the weather vane.
Eventually, to preserve the vane, it was moved inside. But the handiwork of the cowboys, a couple of bullet holes, remained intact.
First Methodist Church
The Rev. W.W. Van Orsdel, also known as Brother Van, was a famous circuit-rider preacher in Montana in the 1880s. Brother Van, who was based in Great Falls, helped establish 100 churches in the Montana territory, including the Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Billings.
According to “On This Corner,” a history edited by Joyce, Larry and Margaret Jensen of the church later renamed First United Methodist Church, the first gathering at the Methodist Episcopal Church occurred in fall 1882.
The service was led by Brother Van in a small log building, the book said, quoting a July 6, 1901, article in the Billings Gazette. The traveling evangelist was going by stagecoach from Lewistown to the lower Yellowstone country.
By all accounts, he was a warm man.
“Brother Van never forgot anyone, was never known to be unkind, and the power of his personality endeared him to all,” according to the book.
Joyce Jensen, who also wrote “Tidbits and Trivia,” shared a legend about Brother Van, which said he was traveling by train when he had an encounter with Kid Curry. The outlaw and his gang intended to rob the passengers.
“The story is told that when The Kid discovered that this was the well-known Methodist preacher, Brother Van, he reached into his hat and gave Brother Van five dollars,” Jensen wrote. “It is said that Brother Van was the only man who was ever robbed by Kid Curry who left with more money than he started with.”
The first pastor assigned to the church never showed up, so it fell to lay people to keep it going. Richard R. Crowe was the church’s initial lay pastor.
The land for the church, which sits at the corner of North Broadway and Fourth Avenue North, was donated by the Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Co. But it wasn’t until 1886 that the church was actually built, causing the congregation to meet wherever space was available.
Crowe, who was a builder, constructed the church with bricks. They came from Brickyard Road, known now as Grand Avenue, in the area that now houses Daylis Stadium.
The Rev. George C. Stull served as pastor four different times between 1883 and 1901. He also was a politician.
According to the Jan. 8, 1901 Billings Gazette, Stull was elected a representative to the Legislature and he returned to Billings on weekends to preach.
Another pastor, the Rev. E.C. Avis, wasn’t quite as upright a citizen. The man was escorted out of town in 1897 and narrowly escaped tar and feathers.
In 1939 three denominations merged, and in 1940 the church changed its name to First Methodist Church. After another merger in 1968, it became the First United Methodist Church.
According to a history compiled by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, now at 119 N. 23rd St., the Rev. William Horsfall presided over the first services during the fall of 1882. Bishop Leigh Richmond Brewer made his first visit to St. Luke’s from Helena in 1883, the year the new mission was organized.
Over the next three years, the 18 members of the church met wherever they could, from the Northern Pacific depot to an empty store and even in the parlor of the Park Hotel. Finally, on Feb. 14, 1886, the congregation gathered for the first time in its new building, at the corner of First Avenue South and South 29th Street.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y., contributed several hundred dollars to the Billings congregation toward the building. That prompted the local church to claim the name St. Luke’s.
In 1905, the people of St. Luke’s laid the cornerstone at its present location, by which time the congregation numbered 136 people. The cost of completing the church totaled nearly $10,000.
An article in the Oct. 24, 1905 Billings Gazette described the planned ceremony:
“The Reverend Joseph J. Bowker, rector of the parish, will preside at the ceremony and the vested choir will be stationed on the front porch of the rectory, a few feet from where the ceremony is to take place, and will render a number of hymns appropriate to the occasion.”
A box behind the cornerstone was filled with silver and gold coins from that era, including a tiny gold dollar from 1849, a small program from the cornerstone ceremony, the newspaper article announcing the impending ceremony and a Gazette from the day of the ceremony, purchased for five cents.
The church was completed in 1906, though it wasn’t formally consecrated until it was paid off in 1929. A parish hall was constructed in 1941. The first floor of St. Luke’s Memorial Hall, where the church offices and classrooms are now, was built in 1964, and two years later, the second floor was completed.