Capitols & churches: high on the divide in Helena

capitols and churchesBy Gary Flanagan

From the wooded river of Boise, I set out for the great state of Montana. Interstates 86 and 15 brought me to the border as exit ramps stretched further apart. Just before midnight, the snow started to fly. I pulled off the highway to a single dark motel. The sleepy owner gave me the key to a surprisingly comfortable room. Feeling rested, I was up with the Sun and ready to climb the continental divide to Helena, the highest capitol in the U.S. at 1.2 miles above sea level.

The nomadic nature of my journey lent itself to the history of the area. Various cultures dating back 10,000 years have moved through these lands on a seasonal basis. The Folsom culture was first. Horse transportation brought the native Salish and Blackfeet tribes. Then, Europeans looking for fur-bearing animals and raw materials from the land arrived in the early 1800s. Finally, the gold rush of 1860 encouraged enough migrants to settle the area. A gold strike in 1864 brought Four Georgians to start Last Chance Gulch, a mining operation. By October, seven men were appointed to name and develop the growing town of 200.

Tomah, a local Indian word, Pumpkinville, and Squashtown were early nominations due to the proximity of Halloween. Helena was suggested based on previous settlements in Minnesota and Arkansas known by similar names. Another thought is that the town was named for the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic between Africa and South America. Saint Helena island’s most famous resident was Napoleon, who was exiled here and buried.It is in this naming possibility, that I found a Capitol and Church connection, that encompasses the most distinctive buildings in Montana’s capital.

I arrived at the capitol in Helena on a Saturday morning, March 16th, 2013. It was very quiet sitting up on the highest point south of the city center. In front, a large, frosty hedge spelling of Montana left no doubt which state I was in. During the summer this hedge turns scarlet red. After walking around and taking in the stunning views of the valley, I find a ten commandments monument on the right side of the Capitol building. A woman taking her morning walk, gladly gives me directions to the closest churches, which are beyond the tree- lined residential area surrounding the capitol.

A half mile drive to the NW and I find 2 churches on the same block. The First Presbyterian church is in a clean modern building with a red roof.On the back of the block stands a very distinctive gothic cathedral also with a red roof. St. Helena’s Roman Catholic Cathedral was built shortly after the Capitol at the turn of the 19th century.

As I looked up at this towering cathedral, I wondered about who Saint Helena was.My research has lead me to the possible link between city and saint. Saint Helena was the mother of Roman emperor Constantine.The Empress Helena converted her son to Christianity and has been credited to be responsible for discovering the True Cross in 327 A.D. She is revered as a saint by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, The Roman Catholic, and the Anglican, as well as commemorated by the Lutheran Church. The island of Saint Helena is reported to be named in her honor. Could that be the full circle of symbolism in this Capitol high on the Continental Divide? Can you make the connection from 327 A.D, to 2013? From the Middle East to the South Atlantic, to Helena, Montana?

I’ll leave you with that homework assignment as I turn East and South across the great wide open of Montana and Wyoming. I’ll see you in Cheyenne next week!

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