The sisters, the mission and the begging tour that funded it

October 17, 1864

On this day, a group of intrepid nuns made it to St. Ignatius Mission, Montana, after a grueling 12,000 mile, four-month journey from their mother house in Montreal.

From left, Srs. Mary of the Infant Jesus, Mary Miki,                Mary Remi and Mary Edward

All members of the Sisters of Providence, three of the nuns, Mary of the Infant Jesus, Mary Edward and Mary Remi had sailed on two steam ships, crossed Panama on foot and the mountains on horseback to get there.  Sister Mary Paul Miki had joined them in Walla Walla, Washington.

Their safe arrival in Montana Territory may have been largely attributable, if not to heavenly intervention, to the fact they were all young.  Two were in their twenties, one just 21 and the fourth, Sister Mary Paul Miki, was 18.

Their order, founded in 1843 in Canada by Mother Emilie Gamelin, (right) the Sisters of Providence, was one of the very first North American orders dedicated to working with the poor.  

They’d undertaken the journey at the request of Father Pierre DeSmet. (Below)  He  was one of the earliest to minister to Native Americans.  Covering more than 180,000 miles in the West over several decades, the Belgian-born Jesuit was appalled by the social damage the whiskey trade had caused among the indigenous people.   St. Joseph’s Mission was established in 1839 at present-day Council Bluff, Iowa, in response. 

Six years later Father DeSmet helped found St. Ignatius near Pend d’Oreille.  The original  site was on unproductive land  and  proved be too isolated, as well. 

The mission was relocated in 1854 and a year later was thriving under the leadership of Father Adrian Hoecken.  But in an apparent overreach, Father Hoecken started a school there in 1855.  Floundering after the first year, Father DeSmet ran up a white flag from his headquarters in St. Louis, summoning recruits among the nuns in Montreal.

 Funds were scarce at St. Ignatius.  To finance the mission, the sisters began a “begging tour,” traveling to remote mining camps and frontier settlements and were able to eventually raise $500, about $8,000 today.

“Begging tour” to remote areas

Under their leadership, St. Ignatius became a fledging hospital along with Providence Holy Family School.   The boarding school for Native American girls of the Flathead tribe was the first religious school in Montana.  Starting out as coeducational, the boys were soon turned over to the Jesuits. 

Father DeSmet’s time in the mission fields of the West had ended by the mid-1840s.   He had returned to St. Louis two decades before his industrious female recruits arrived on the frontier.   His remaining years were spent raising money, traveling to Europe 18 times to support a growing number of missions.

Holy Family School eventually closed after a series of fires decimated the facility,  But the Sisters of Providence stayed, becoming a leading force in Montana’s health care system.

Holy Family School, circa 1889

Sister Mary of the Infant Jesus administered St. Ignatius for 52 years and is buried in the St. Ignatius cemetery, along with Sister Mary Miki, who died at age 38 after teaching at the school for 16 years.  Today the Sisters of Providence continue to minister to the poor, operating programs in the U.S., Canada and seven countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East.

Father DeSmet died in St. Louis at age 72 and is buried in the Cemetery of the Western Jesuits in Florissant, Missouri.  A mountain range, several lakes, a number of schools and three communities are named for him.  The best known, DeSmet, South Dakota, was made famous by “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder, (right) and is the setting for a number of her books. 

St Ignatius Mission, 300 Bear Track Avenue, St. Ignatius, Montana, set amid spectacular mountain scenery, features 58 original murals by Brother Joseph Carignano.  The mission’s museum and gift shop, with exhibits of Mission artifacts, is located in the original 1854 log church, the first home of the Jesuits and Fr. Adrian Hoecken. 

Mass is celebrated every Sunday morning at 9:15.  The mission is open daily 9 to 7 in summer and 9 to 5 in winter  For more information go to, e-mail, call (406) 745-2768 or write PO Box 667, St Ignatius, MT 59865

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.