Lacey Middlestead is a Montana native and freelance writer currently living in Helena, Mont. She loves meeting new people and helping share their stories. When she’s not busy writing articles for newspapers like the Independent Record and Helena Vigilante, she can usually be found indulging in her second greatest passion–playing in the Montana wilderness. She loves skiing and snowmobiling in the winter and four wheeling, hiking, boating, and riding dirt bikes in the summer.
One of the things I often take for granted living in Montana is just how many interesting historical buildings and landmarks there are to visit. I guess I just get too caught up enjoying the beauty of the Montana outdoors to remember what a wealth of history there is to appreciate.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend three days in a 103-year-old Catholic boarding school in Great Falls. Not exactly my first pick for a weekend getaway but my fiancé, Andy, and I were attending our Engaged Encounter Retreat in preparation for our wedding in September. The information we received in the mail about the retreat said we would be staying at the Ursuline Centre in Great Falls. It wasn’t until we pulled up to the huge brick building on Friday evening that I realized what it was.
To put it in my own words, it is the Catholic Hogwarts.
The Ursuline Centre was originally built as a boarding school in 1912 by the Sisters of the Ursuline Order. The first classes began in September of 1912 with 151 students—boys and girls in kindergarten through 8th grade and girls only for high school. Over the years the building housed classes from kindergarten through junior college. As time went on, however, departments were taken over by other institutions in Great Falls and the school finally closed in 1966.
The sisters searched for other possible uses for the building and recognized a growing need for a retreats and spiritual center in that part of Montana. The name of Ursuline Center was adapted and a new ministry of retreats and spiritual presence was established. Today the building serves as a retreat and conference center to various groups as well as offers childcare and pre-kindergarten classes. In 1991, Ursuline Centre was also placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Upon Andy and me first arriving at the Ursuline Center we were given name tags and shown to our rooms. Girls slept on the 3rd floor and boys on the 4th. Most of the rooms had 2 twin beds in them, a vanity and sink. Some of the furniture, according to a pamphlet I later found, is the same used by boarders for 50 years. As I dropped my bag onto the bed I got a flashback to when I first moved into St. Charles at Carroll College my sophomore year.
After a couple of hours of introduction to the retreat we were set free for the rest of the night. Instead of trying to bond with the other couples, like I should have been doing, I went wandering the dark corridors and halls….perhaps trying to channel the curious nature of Harry Potter or Hermione Granger.
I passed by the Green Parlor—the name stemming from the large sage green rug covering most of the floor. In addition to its use as a parlor the room had also been used by the Ursuline Auxiliary, a group of mostly student mothers and dedicated women friends for teas and other special occasion. The room featured several ornate pieces of furniture, biblical paintings and a stunning harp that was manufactured in France between 1819 and 1823.
Just down the hall from the Green Parlor was the Bishop’s Parlor, which is where our retreat leaders were stationed for the weekend. The Bishop’s Parlor was remodeled in 1971 in honor of Mother Clotilde McBride for her library work at the Ursuline Center. It contains several antique bookcases from St. Peter’s Mission. There are even some rare books shelved on them that date to around 1800.
Across from the Bishop’s Parlor was the auditorium. I spent a lot of my weekend in there journaling on various marital topics and discussing things with Andy. I kept trying to picture a bunch of little kids peeping their head out from around the velvety curtains flanking the stage as they waited for their cue in the school play. Sitting just below the stage were two grand pianos covered in sheets. I tried to imagine hearing the tinkling of keys echoing out across the room. Just outside the auditorium was a large board marked with squares and days of the week. At one time it was used to post teachers’ class schedules. I wondered how different the types of classes taught were from what I had taken in school.
I stumbled upon the best part of the building though around 11:30 p.m. after wandering down the 4th floor hallway in the darkness. I opened a door and stepped out into the choir loft of the chapel. I walked over to the balcony and looked down at the few glowing lights illuminating the silent grace below. While I have been in several churches before, what set this one apart were the two astonishing murals painted on the wall behind the altar. Their size and vibrancy drew my eyes straight to them. The priest assisting on our retreat that weekend later explained their history to us. The murals were painted by Mother Raphael Schweda who taught art at the school for about 50 years. They were her rendition of St. Ursula and St. Angela, who was the foundress of the Ursuline Order. A few other murals painted by Mother Raphael Schweda also lined the walls of the main hall in the Ursuline Center. Every time I walked by them I half expected the figure of Jesus to start walking along with me and talking like the paintings in Harry Potter. But alas, no such luck.
On Saturday evening Andy and I, along with the other couples celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the chapel—a place largely unchanged since it was built. It was an incredible experience and one that not many people can say they’ve had. I even volunteered to assist with the readings, one of which went through the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. I only recently joined the Catholic Church last Easter and it was an incredible honor to read some of the most profound words in scripture in a chapel rooted in so much history and tradition.
While the Ursuline Center wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to spend a weekend, I tried to focus on appreciating the historical and religious significance of it. It was a peaceful weekend that made me slow down amidst my anxious wedding planning and remind myself that I will soon be getting married, not just having a wedding. And Andy and I will be celebrating that event in a tradition that is centuries old.