When Father Anthony Ravalli died in 1884, all Montana mourned the passing of an extraordinary man, a rare genius who has since been lauded as Montanaâ€™s Renaissance Man. This priest, physician, sculptor, and apothecarist served the residents of western Montana, be they Indian or white, Catholic or Protestant, respected pioneer or renegade. In bitter cold or scorching heat, he traveled a radius of 200 miles curing bodies and souls.
Jesuit Father Schoenberg described Father Ravalli as being over six feet tall, about 200 pounds, with greenish-brown eyes, a sharp nose and firm mouth, tantamount to the appearance of a scholar. â€śHe was the epitome of gentility, sensitive, disciplined - a man with enormous capacity for compassion,â€ť wrote Father Schoenberg of Ravalli.
Anthony J. Ravalli was the first-born child of well-to-do parents in Ferrara, Italy, on May 16, 1812. He joined the Jesuit order of Catholic priest at age fifteen. He was trained in biology and studied medicine at the University of Rome. There, the gorgeous architecture, paintings, and sculpting absorbed this young student who later used his artistic and architectural gifts to build and decorate remote mission churches in the Rocky Mountains of Northwest America. While vacationing in Piedmont, he was impressed with the idyllic beauty of Lake Como, the name he later gave to another mountain lake of similar beauty in the Bitterroot Valley.
When Father Pierre DeSmet visited Italy to recruit missionaries (or â€śapostlesâ€ť as he called them) to aid the Indians in the Rocky Mountains, Father Ravalli — who was already an admirer of the Jesuit missionaries — volunteered. So did Fathers Marquette and Jogues. After an eight-month voyage, he arrived with Father DeSmet at Fort Vancouver, on August 5, 1844. He carried with him supplies of medicines, surgical and medical instruments, carpenter tools, and two buhr or mill stones, a gift from an Irish merchant in Antwerp.
His harsh introduction to this primitive country came when journeying aboard a Hudsonâ€™s Bay Company barge, where Ravalli was spilled into icy waters. Fortunately, an Indian man rescued him. He arrived at St. Maryâ€™s in the Bitterroot from St. Paulâ€™s Mission, near Kettle Falls, Idaho in 1845 and remained there until its closure in 1850.
The young priest fell easily into life at the mission, constructing the grist and saw mills, designing the new chapel, caring for the sick Indians, and administering the sacraments. However, this â€śterrestrial paradise,â€ť as he had described it upon his arrival, was a mission under siege, harassed persistently by the Blackfeet. â€śâ€¦dwelling at St. Maryâ€™s was like living in an 11th Century Normandy village - an attack was always imminent,â€ť Schoenberg later wrote.