Sunday, September 18, 2005

Art in the Churches of Browning, Montana

Catholic churches are traditionally open to art and even in small reservation parishes of Montana there have been some spectacular accomplishments, particularly the work of Brother Joseph Carignano, the cook and handyman, primarily, but also a gifted artist in his ability to recreate European-style paintings. Sixty-one religious paintings cover the walls and ceilings in the historic St. Ignatius Catholic Church. One painting on the little roof over the pulpit which is meant to bounce preaching out to the congregation was commissioned to be done by Ace Powell. It is a sky with clouds and I seem to remember a dove, but maybe not. I remember Ace debating about it with Bob Scriver.

The Catholic church in Browning, Montana, is not so elaborate, but has classical church statuary meant to celebrate the namesake of the church, Theresa, the Little Flower, as well as Takawitha, the Native American saint. Also the sanctuary enfolds striking creations by local artists. The stained glass windows in the style of Roault are by King Kuka. Glowing chunks of thick glass illustrate the Stations of the Cross. One of several websites for King Kuka is

A more-than-lifesized Jesus on the Cross is the work of Gordon Monroe, who was Bob Scriver’s fiberglass artisan and who styled the figure after Scriver’s small crucifix called, “Eli, Eli.” Gordon is a committed evangelical Christian who has been secretary-treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribal Council. He’s especially active in charity work, bringing in truckloads of donations for poor people from a network of contacts throughout the United States.

The combination of the windows, which includes a “Sacred Heart” image in the round “rose” window over the altar and the huge bronze-colored figure on the Cross, which sometimes wears a gold lamé robe, is quite powerful. This church was built of field stones collected and brought in by the members of the tribe by horse and wagon and then mortared together by Blackfeet workers. The stones are round, tumbled by ancient glaciers, and often pink or turquoise argyllite. (The first Indian Health Service hospital was built in the same manner.)

A small side-chapel of the Catholic Church, where Mass is said on Thursdays, has an “Indian” theme in its decorations. The grounds have several “medicine stones,” which were brought from the prairie, to the distress of some elders who thought they should not be moved. Geologically called “boulder erratics,” they were carried in and dropped by the ancient glaciers that shaped so much of this land, and often became “itching rocks” for buffalo who had no trees to scrape against, reconnaissance posts for prairie hawks and cougars, and altar stones where offerings could be left as gifts for Natoosie, the Sun.

The Heart Butte Catholic Church, St. Anne’s, has given up its small emerald-doored log cabin and rebuilt as a capacious building with modern facilities, including a residence for the priest. The front wall, behind the altar, is a broad mural of the Heart Butte area in the old days.

The Methodist church, the trademark flame-and-cross on its bell-tower which was originally the entrance, has stained glass windows by Brent Warburton. Warburton, once a teacher at the Blackfeet Free School and often a cook like Brother Carignano, also did the stained glass windows at the Holy Family Mission Catholic Church in the Two Medicine Valley. The larger mission school buildings once operated by the Jesuits have been demolished. Warburton was not a church-goer.

In the Holy Family windows the main motif is doves for peace. In the Methodist church in Browning, the pattern is more ambitious and involves all the windows of the sanctuary in a wrap-around mural of a stream that arises at Chief Mountain behind the altar, then continues around the side, passing foothills wildlife, and ends in a prairie rainbow, God’s promise not to destroy the world again. Warburton’s style is realistic, slightly stylized. Neither he nor Kuka used paint to add detail.

A recent pastor had a Pentecostal bent and enlisted others to put stained glass windows in the bell tower. Hard to notice unless the light is right, the most striking of these is a pastor in clerical garb. He also added an icon of Mary in the sanctuary and banners in bright colors.

This once very modest church was built outside of Browning along Willow Creek where the parsonage is now located. It was moved to town long ago and resituated in a different orientation to the compass. Build-ons were a response to a large Sunday School operation in the Fifties, but now the church mainly uses its space for community support.

The oldest art in this church is the carving on the fronts of the Communion Table and the pulpit. These are the work of Al Racine, some of his earliest wood-carvings. Later he would be acclaimed for these bas reliefs, and also his well-loved Napi cartoon character, who flees riding on a cougar which he whips with a rattlesnake, saying, “I’m gettin’ outta here! This place is too tough for me!” The only remaining public example of Al’s cartoon character in his big black hat is on the side of Ick’s Place, an emporium of gambling and intoxication, where it was altered to hold playing cards and a bottle. Originally the character was eating flapjacks.

Even so does art wind in and out of our religious lives, even when the religion is that of Lucifer rather than Jesus, Natoosie or the Virgin Mary rather than Jehovah. A reservation is only a microcosm of everyplace.

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