St. Thomas Church to Celebrate 90th Anniversary
June 29, 2022
On Sunday, July 10, the parish family of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Harlem will be commemorating their 90th anniversary. Following a 10:00 Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, a picnic dinner will follow on the church lawn under a tent covering. The public is invited to participate in the celebration.
The current building at 212 First Avenue SE in Harlem was constructed in 1932 after parish members worked to raise funding to build a new church. According to current parishioner Karolee Cronk, the project was completed with countless hours of volunteer work. This structure replaced the first Catholic Church in Harlem, St. Stephens, which would be celebrating its 120th anniversary. That building still stands on the property of Frank Baldik-the great grandson of William Buckley-where it functions as a storage facility. An old Gothic-styled window hints at its original purpose as a church.
Given that everyone is invited and all food will be furnished at the 90th Anniversary Celebration, church members are asking that celebrators RSVP so that an accurate head count can be obtained. Those interested in sharing in the anniversary festivities are encouraged to call Cronk at 406-353-2874 or Dorothy Harris at 406-353-2444.
The church's history is rooted in the work of early missionaries, especially that of the Jesuits. A Jesuit was a member of the Society of Jesus (S.J.), a Roman Catholic order of religious men founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola and noted for its educational, missionary, and charitable works.
In 1883 after Father Frederick Eberschweiler, S.J. arrived in Montana, he was assigned to be a pastor for the area east of Great Falls to the Dakota Border. In 1885, he made Chinook his home and eventually served the newly settled communities near Harlem.
In its early days, Harlem's Catholic Church was a mission of Chinook, and Masses were celebrated in the homes of local Catholics. From 1889 and throughout the 1890s, many of these services were held in the James Fox home, with Mary Elizabeth Fox making the hosts for Holy Communion. These were the grandparents of Lucile Brennan and Frances Pitsch. Other early parishioners included the families of William Buckley, Vince Pauly, Frank Dorrity, and Charles Murphy.
As the parish grew, the need for a church building was evident. So, in 1900 construction on St. Stephen's Church began. It was built on two lots in the northeastern area of Harlem. One of the lots was donated by Buckley; the second was purchased. Constructed for a cost of $600, the first church was a 20' x 40' building which did not include a sanctuary. On May 5, 1902, Father Eberschweiler blessed the new church, and on April 14, 1907, Father Sansonne erected the Stations of the Cross.
In time, the parish outgrew this first church, and by 1917, a larger church was on the minds of many. Eventually, land was purchased on the south side of the railroad tracks in what was then called the Barton Addition. However, it was 1931 before the building of a new church was strongly promoted, owing to the leadership of Reverend W. Callahan.
Under the supervision of James Delaney, a Havre contractor in charge of construction, the groundbreaking began in February of 1932. With much of the labor, teams, and equipment for excavation being donated by parishioners, the new Spanish mission-style church featured stained glass windows, a bell tower, and a basement. According to a pamphlet circulated in 2002 to celebrate "100 Years of Faith," this church was made possible by the labors of the Ladies' Sodality (now called the Altar Society), various parishioner donations, and a $2,000 donation from the Catholic Church Extension in the memory of Thomas J. Ryan.
On September 28, 1932, St. Thomas, the Apostle, Catholic Church was dedicated by Reverend Edwin O'Hara, Bishop of Great Falls. Ten years later, a rectory was purchased; however, until 1943, when Fr. John O'Brien became the first resident priest, Harlem had the status of a mission of the Chinook Church. Harlem's resident priest also served the Big Flat's St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Fort Belknap's Sacred Heart Church. Over the years as populations dwindled and the number of priests declined, Harlem once again became a mission church of the Chinook parish. The present priest is Father Michael Schneider.
In April 1974, a building between the church and the rectory was added for the purposes of religious education. For many years in the summertime, visiting nuns would conduct vacation bible school programs here. The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) Center continues to serve the parish community today.
According to Cronk, landscaping, a ramp, basement improvements, new roofs, and general upkeep to both the church and the CCD Center have all added to the St. Thomas facilities. "With the efforts of many good people who have worked hard over the years, our parish community continues to maintain its vitality," she stated.