St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1934, was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of Father Thomas J. Martin, whose grave can be seen at the northeast corner of the church. Father Martin spent all but the first six years of his priesthood in Helena, and his fondest wish was to leave behind him a beautiful and lasting monument to the church and to the people whom he loved and served for so many years.
The architect was Charles Eames. This church was his first large commission, and one that he always spoke of as being one of his finest works. Mr. Eames gave up his work as an architect, achieving fame in industrial design. His name is considered to modern furniture design what Frank Lloyd Wright’s name is to architecture. He designed the famous Eames chair, which is the “father” to all molded plastic furniture.
When St. Mary’s was begun in 1934, it is hard to say whether it was ahead of its time or several hundred years behind the times. During this period the people were accustomed to the Renaissance type churches – those with lots of clouds and sunbursts and angels – with faulted light-blue ceilings and light and airy walls. However, in Europe, Mr. Eames had studied the building of Gropius, whose theory was that “form follows function”, and the works of Mies Van deRohe, who designed with the feeling that “less is more”. Eames combined their more abstract works with the plain primitive buildings of the Early Christian Era. These early churches were not “pretty churches”, but had a special beauty in their medieval way. They were built in the shape of a Latin cross and always faced east in the anticipation of the coming of Christ. They had a large wall space with very little window space, and they were usually dark with dark ceilings and exposed beams. Mr. Eames followed all these ancient designs. He decorated the large ceiling beams with appropriate religious symbols and kept the brick interior very simple and austere like many of the early church buildings. The early Christians only had earth pigments with which to work, so their churches were done entirely in warm earth colors. The brick walls of St. Mary’s were painted a dusky rose in keeping with that age. Even in the light fixtures Mr. Eames achieved a medieval feeling. The lights were made to resemble the world, half in darkness, half in light. As you enter the church and walk toward the altar you see the world in darkness, but they are so placed that after receiving Our Lord, and then turning to leave the church, only the light and no darkness can be seen.
St. Mary’s is open for services on Sundays at 10:00am. It can be toured by appointment.