Situated at a panoramic 6,150-foot elevation in Virginia City, Nevada, St. Mary in the Mountains Church is aptly named. The road leading to its Gothic, red-brick frame and towering white steeple winds upward along desert mountainsides of sparsely scattered sagebrush and fir trees, calling to mind the episode from Mary’s life that inspired the designation: “During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40).
This month, parishioners and friends of St. Mary’s celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone in the present church. A colorful memory, the inaugural event took place Aug. 18, 1868, at the height of the silver-mining bonanza in Virginia City. With 5,000 parishioners overflowing into the original church structure, newly ordained founder and pastor, Father Patrick Manogue, prepared to expand into a larger space.
Band members of the Irish Emmett Guard provided a musical accompaniment, while Father Manogue, eight Daughters of Charity and their students, 200 members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and throngs of parishioners followed in a procession behind Bishop Eugene O’Connell, who was carried in a sudan chair (type of chair carried by people) to the new building site a few blocks away. There, he blessed the cornerstone as it was set into place.
The fruit of his blessing, St. Mary’s remains the oldest active parish in Nevada, an oasis of peace despite many setbacks and challenges. It suffered only partial damage during the Great Fire of 1875 that destroyed 2,000 structures within 14 hours.
It retained faithful parishioners following the demise of the silver-mining industry that forced thousands to leave. It survived the tumultuous 10-year succession of 15 different pastors throughout the 1940s and ’50s. And, in 1959, the parish defended its cultural integrity after the dismantling of the interior of the church during the period dubbed the “Mad Monk Era.”
A facetious moniker, the “Mad Monks” were a Cistercian community that arrived in 1957 upon the invitation of Bishop Robert Dwyer. Although well-intentioned, they were soon directed by their superior, Father Robert Jelliffe, to remove all Gothic pieces from the church and to replace them with modern designs, convinced the contemporary look would attract more parishioners; instead, it triggered an uproar that blossomed into an unexpected moment of solidarity.
Father Anton Sommers, who just retired as pastor of St. Mary’s, recounted details during a recent interview at the church, and said, “When the Mad Monks trashed the church, it unified the whole town. Catholics, Protestants and atheists were all screaming, ‘You’re destroying our heritage!’” The reason, he explained, is that nearly all Virginia City residents are romantics.
“They’re here because they love the history and the scenery, and they’re deeply appreciative of the heritage we have.”
A Virginia City historian, Patrick Neylan is the curator of St. Mary’s museum and described the process to restore lost items. “There were two confessionals that the Mad Monks cut up,” he said. “The second one was discovered just a month ago at the train depot.” The altar, he explained, was stored and then recreated at the House of Memories Museum by Jim Warren, a local craftsman. After the museum closed, the altar was returned, along with most of the other artifacts.
Often, Neylan said, items are returned by children after the death of a parent. A vase was returned last summer from a woman whose great-grandmother had taken it at a wedding in the 1930s. “So I guess the family is buying her out of purgatory,” Neylan quipped. “You never know what will pop up.”
In agreement, Father Sommers said, “Nothing normal ever happens in Virginia City! The parish is extremely small, but we have between 40,000 to 50,000 visitors a year in the church. We get all kind of folks: active Catholics, non- Catholics and people who have never been in a church before. So it’s basically like having a chapel in Disneyland.” Aware of the opportunity for evangelization, he said, “We try to make it a positive experience for everyone.”
Parishioner Liz Huntington was thrilled to share how visiting St. Mary’s eventually led to her conversion into the Catholic Church. “When I’d visit Virginia City from my home, at that time in the Napa Valley,” she said, “the first thing I’d do is to rush to the church. If it was closed, I’d sit outside and pray there just to be close!”
Now a resident of Virginia City, she has often conversed with visitors, who describe St. Mary’s as a “thin” place, “where you can almost push through a thin veil and be in contact with God,” she said. “Many feel a strong presence of God in the church. I’ve seen people burst into tears upon entering, as the presence can be very strong at times.”
In gratitude, to ensure the possibility of similar graces for thousands of others for the next 150 years, in addition to seismic retrofitting and repair work done in 2008-2009, the parish has just begun work to repair the badly leaking bell tower. By next spring, with the help of additional funding, the faithful hope to again ring the original 2,254-pound bell to invite all to experience the presence of God in St. Mary in the Mountains Church.
After all, as one little boy recently exclaimed, “This is God’s castle!”
Jennifer Sokol writes from