When Alisa Herodes was a child, her grandmother Helen had plenty of stories to share. Born in 1894, Helen was the granddaughter of one of the families credited with founding Lewistown. Herodes’ ancestors were Métis, a people and culture that developed from the intermingling of European settlers and Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“My grandmother was quite older, and I wish I would have listened more,” said Herodes, whose family relocated to Montana in 1879. One story, however, stuck with Herodes: how her grandmother arrived at St. Peter’s Mission, west of what is now Cascade.

“When I was little, she told me she was forced there by horse and buggy, and I didn’t believe her,” Herodes said. “She was kind of a jokester, so you didn’t know.”

Helen, along with her sister Gladys, was one of many Native American, Canadian First Nations and Métis children taken from their families to be educated at Catholic missions across Montana beginning in the late 1800s.

To bring attention to the complex history of Montana’s Catholic missions, in September violinist Megan Karls unveiled “Re-envisioned: Montana Composers in Mission Churches.” The video album features Karls performing solo on location at St. Peter’s Mission, St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville, St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, also known as the Pink Church, located near Harlem on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Karls commissioned Montana composers Phillip Aaberg, Grant Harville and Charles Nichols to write compositions based on the locations.

“There is so much culture and history involved in St. Peter’s Mission, and a lot of important things happened there — good and bad. The surviving memories of people who were there — the experiences range from ecstatic to miserable.”  

Composer Phillip Aaberg

“I want to shine a bit of a light on what is going on in our part of the world, and the history of the mission churches is a really big part of that,” said Karls, a classically trained violinist and symphonic player who grew up in a rural part of northern Wisconsin and now resides in Great Falls. “It’s fun to play in big halls. It’s fun to play in symphonies. But this feels like the most important work that I could be doing right now through the violin.”

In September, Karls gave a public performance at St. Peter’s, inviting Herodes and others from the area to join in an intimate performance. Karls performed several pieces in the style of traditional Métis fiddling and debuted Aaberg’s original composition.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the bunch,” Herodes said. “It was so powerful, hearing that music. It just felt so haunting and beautiful — and bittersweet.”

Herodes has walked the grounds of St. Peter’s many times, collecting bits of porcelain dishes that remain among the rubble and stacked stone of the old school. Only the church remains where her grandmother might have played the fiddle using the same technique of cross-tuning, a traditional Métis technique.

Aaberg, who is known for composing music about places, knew exactly where he wanted to center his composition after being approached by Karls about the project.  

“There is so much culture and history involved in St. Peter’s Mission, and a lot of important things happened there — good and bad,” Aaberg said. “The surviving memories of people who were there — the experiences range from ecstatic to miserable.”

Writing “music of place,” Aaberg said, is based on the natural sound and the resonant characteristics of an area, from its visual cues to the quality of the air, but also its historical footprint.

https://montanafreepress.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/1_Pink_Church_-Improvisation.mp4
Megan Karls performs an improvisational piece outside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, also known as the Pink Church, located near Harlem. The piece is part of Karls’ latest video album, “Re-envisioned: Montana Composers in Mission Churches.” Video courtesy of Megan Karls

Outside St. Peter’s, there’s an absence of buildings and pavement. Such a vast land expands a viewer’s capacity and heightens their senses. Everything is sharper. You hear the way the grass crunches, the way your eardrums move, the beating of your heart.

Aaberg was struck by the openness, and also by what remains. “I have been out there, standing outside the church, and there is nothing there,” he said. “And there is a graveyard. Who is buried there, and why are they buried there? It could be an opera. It is a lot to put into a 10-minute piece.”

THE MISSION FOOTPRINT 

St. Peter’s Mission was one of several sites occupied by the Catholic Mission, which sent Jesuit priests across what would become Montana in the late 1800s. In 1841, they established the first mission — St. Mary’s — on the traditional homelands of the Salish in the Bitterroot Valley, where the town of Stevensville would spring up. 

The Jesuits continued their push into Montana, working along north-central Montana in the mid-1800s. According to a wooden sign hanging at the entrance, St. Peter’s Mission was established among the Blackfeet by missionaries in 1866. The log church was built in 1878, though missionaries were in the region as early as 1865 and occupied the site a year later, hoping to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Many factors pushed the Blackfeet from the area, including an act of Congress in 1874 that moved the Blackfeet Reservation boundary north, placing St. Peter’s out of range. Similarly, in the Bitterroot Valley, the Salish were eventually forced from the area to the Flathead Reservation in 1891.

At the same time, the Métis people were moving south into the region. The Métis originated largely in Western Canada from the intermingling of Europeans (primarily Scottish and French emigrants, trappers, and fur traders) with Indigenous peoples in Canada. After 1870, many Métis took up residence in Montana after being forced to leave the Red River Settlement, a region that covers what is now southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.

Megan Karls poses outside the “Pink Church” in Harlem. Credit: Dave Raba

In 1884 at St. Peter’s, a school was established by the Ursuline Order (a Catholic religious institution for women) and a large stone building was built in 1887. The Jesuits withdrew from the mission in 1897, but the school for boys continued until 1908. The girls school closed in 1918, when the school was destroyed by fire.

“This site was the cradle of Christianity and a cultural center in Eastern Montana,” reads a metal sign erected outside the church. St. Peter’s Mission Cemetery is just behind the church, a reminder of the hardships faced by residents and children, and includes many unmarked graves dating back to 1866.

After her mother died, Herodes was left with many of her family’s papers, journals and books, and she has been piecing together their story for decades. Among the family documents, she found her grandmother’s Bible from St. Peter’s Mission, titled “The Catholic Girl’s Guide,” and a postcard of St. Peter’s sent from one sister to another asking, “Remember the good times we had here?”

“Was that in jest, or did they appreciate it as they got older?” Herodes wondered.

Frank LaLiberty, who has been the church’s caretaker for the past decade, said a handful of interested residents and neighbors maintain the property.

“Some of the locals here have kept it up. We put a lot of work in this, especially with the foundation and putting up the fence. The cows used to just come right up here.” They also added a ramp for access.

According to LaLiberty, the church is surrounded by privately held land where cattle graze, and the dioceses of Great Falls and Billings own the land on which the church sits. Oversight of the property falls to the Sacred Heart Parish in Cascade.

LaLiberty said he maintains the property because of its historical significance. “There is so much history here, and it’s just a fascinating story that they were able to build something like this at the time, and they built so many of them.”

‘A WHOLE UNIVERSE’ 

Karls selected four churches and three composers for “Re-envisioned,” and she improvised a piece herself outside the Pink Church on the southern edge of the Fort Belknap Reservation. The church, built in 1931 in a mission style reminiscent of southwestern architecture, is now abandoned, its windows boarded shut.

“I had no plans before the first note, just to be in the space and observe the energy of this location, letting bubble up what felt right at the time,” Karls said.  

The location is a stark contrast to the bustling campus of St. Ignatius, built in the early 1890s, which now offers weekly mass and daily hours for tourists to view the church, featuring 58 hand-painted panels on the ceiling.  

“It has always been interesting to me what is preserved and what decays,” Karls said. “Ultimately, my goal was to have these thoughtful composers write for each location in a way that was meaningful to them. I saw my role as simply to bring their music to life in each church and open the experience for each viewer to explore what the work means for them.”

Violinist Megan Karls gives a solo performance in St. Peter’s Mission on Sept. 30, 2022 as part of her debut of “Re-envisioned: Montana Composers in Mission Churches.” Credit: Anna Paige / MTFP

For Aaberg, he chose one of the most beautiful sounds he knows — the call of the western meadowlark. Using a computer to slow down a field recording of the bird’s song, Aaberg transcribed each note to use as the basis of the composition.

“There is a whole universe in here, all the sliding, changing sounds being done at once,” Aaberg said. “The only instrument that can do that is the violin.”

This isn’t Karls first foray into music about places. Her solo project “Decommissioned,” a video album showcasing music in unexpected locations, was released in January 2021 in response to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. She performed and recorded a series of videos in abandoned Cold War-era military installations across northern Montana.

“If I were to distill my whole life into a bumper sticker, it would be ‘new music for new ears,’” Karls said. “There is a lot of classical music being written right now by people who are relevant to us and to our lives and in our communities.”

Karls said she regards the pieces without an agenda. “I wanted to bring people together, and I wanted to learn more, and in my ultimate goal to perhaps inspire more curiosity. I am not making statement-driven art,” she said.

Composing music in these places, Karls said, she learned that sharing videos of music recorded in place has power. “If you sit there for five minutes and you look at that scene, you have to address it. I am not making a statement for what was right or what was wrong. I am just saying, sit in the space for five minutes and address it.”

Megan Karls will perform works from “Re-envisioned: Montana Composers in Mission Churches” on Nov. 17, at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville. The performance is free and open to the public, and starts at 6 p.m. The album is available through the Great Falls Symphony or by emailing megan.karls@gmail.com.

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Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.