Former church north of Lewistown will get new life as community center

2010-08-04T17:52:00Z Former church north of Lewistown will get new life as community centerSUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 04, 2010 5:52 pm  • 

In the tiny town of Danvers, 25 miles northwest of Lewistown, sits a small white church that’s empty of people but full of memories.

Built in 1916, St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church served the spiritual needs of generations of families who lived and farmed in central Montana. Nearby priests would come and say Mass once a month at the prairie parish, and on other Sundays, church members led fellow congregants in prayer.

Its use dwindled over the years. By the late 1990s, St. Leo’s in Lewistown only occasionally hosted worship.

Finally, around the year 2000, the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings closed the church. It gradually fell into disrepair.

But now, thanks to people who were part of the parish in its earlier years, St. Wenceslaus will be refurbished and find a new use. It will soon become a local meeting place, community center and heritage archive.

A key person behind the project is Peggy Barta, who lives in Billings and who grew up on a farm 10 or 15 miles from the church, between Lewistown and Danvers. Barta, the third of seven children, attended St. Wenceslaus every Sunday with her parents and siblings.

“I went to church there my entire childhood,” she said. “And my grandpa and grandma lived right there in Danvers so we’d see them every week.”

A history of the church, compiled by the Montana Preservation Alliance, describes Danvers as “one in a chain of small Central Montana town sites, platted along the route of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad from 1912 to 1914.”

There was a high concentration of Czech settlers in the area — including Barta’s grandmother. The families stayed together when they immigrated, and they moved from the Midwest to Montana when homestead lands opened up, after 1910.

Once St. Wenceslaus was constructed, priests traveled from other parishes to lead Mass. They often came by train from towns such as Geraldine, the preservation group said.

Barta doesn’t remember exactly how many people attended St. Wenceslaus “but it was always full.”

Once the diocese closed it, though, the church building started to decline. It needed a new coat of paint, a new roof, repairs to the foundation and general sprucing up.

Barta hated to see the building sitting there neglected and unused, so she decided to do something about it.

She formed a nonprofit called Friends of St. Wenceslaus to raise funds to help preserve the church. As interest began to build, she found others like herself who wanted to support the effort.

“It’s very interesting how responsive people have been,” Barta said. “I have friends who are members from Alaska, Seattle, California who grew up loving going to church there.”

Over time the Friends of St. Wenceslaus partnered with the MPA and the diocese, including Bishop Michael Warfel, who Barta said has been very willing to consider proposals for the church. The three entities came up with a plan to preserve and maintain St. Wenceslaus, she said.

The Montana Preservation Alliance has raised $19,000 in grant funds to help refurbish the building’s roof. And Rob Domier, a Danvers descendent and professional painter who lives in Helena, earlier this month scraped and painted the exterior.

Now volunteers will come together Friday and Saturday to do more painting and other needed interior work. Remarkably, Barta said, even though the building has been unlocked for some time, the inside has stayed in good shape.

“The hymnals are on the pews and the linens are still on the altar,” she said. “And if you go in a side room, the chalices and vestments are still hanging thee. Other than it needs to be cleaned, you could really walk in and have services because it’s been so well preserved and because people have been so respectful.”

Visitors who have made their way inside have turned a blackboard into a sort of sign-up space. One visitor was from Germany.

Once work on the old church is completed, the building will become a community center and gathering space, Barta said. One of the grants the preservation group secured will allow the Friends of St. Wenceslaus to create a digital history that will include oral histories of the area.

The work to this point has been both gratifying and exhausting, Barta said. But all of the interest from others convinced her of one thing.

“It just seemed like it was something meant to be,” she said. “I could not be happier. It’s wonderful.”

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