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Father Anthony J. Ravalli (1812-1884): Montana’s Renaissance Man

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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 Montana’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. “He was the epitome of gentility, sensitive, disciplined – a man with enormous capacity for compassion,” 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 “apostles” 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 Hudson’s Bay Company barge, where Ravalli was spilled into icy waters. Fortunately, an Indian man rescued him. He arrived at St. Mary’s in the Bitterroot from St. Paul’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 “terrestrial paradise,” as he had described it upon his arrival, was a mission under siege, harassed persistently by the Blackfeet. “…dwelling at St. Mary’s was like living in an 11th Century Normandy village – an attack was always imminent,” Schoenberg later wrote.

When the decision was finally made to abandon the mission, the exhausted priests, in poor health and dispirited, left with heavy hearts. Father Ravalli traveled to Coeur d’Alene, a journey of eight days that required 72 river crossings.

A living landmark, Old Cataldo Mission stands serenely on a hill 25 miles east of Coeur d’Alene along Interstate 90 in Idaho’s northern panhandle. Uncommon in its architecture, venerable in its chronicles, romantic in its history, The Old Mission beckons a welcome to all who come within sight of the hill upon which it sets.

In 1848, Father Anthony Ravalli perched on these gentle slopes spreading from the Coeur d’Alene River to the mountains. Two years later, using Old-World ideas as his blueprints, he began to construct the Mission. His tools: a broad axe, an auger, a penknife, and some ropes and pulleys. Nails were not available, so holes needed to be burrowed into uprights and rafters and joined with wooden pegs.

The ingenuity of workmanship still patent today at the Old Catalo Mission — sanctuary walls of strong flowered cloth, wooden statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, three hand-chiseled altars — can be attributed to Ravalli, his two brothers, and members of the Coeur d’Alene Indian tribe.

At one point, an enervated Ravalli was assigned to Santa Clara Mission in California to recuperate. Refreshed, he returned to the mission at Coeur d’Alene, where he finalized construction and decoration of the new church. Using the materials at hand, he made a baptismal font from tin cans and solder, a pine credence table of perfect artisanship and design, as well as tabernacle doors from old copper cauldrons.

In 1855, General Isaac Stevens spent the night at the mission, where he administered the Oath of Allegiance to the United States to Fathers Superior Gazzoli and Ravalli. John Mix Stanley, architect and artist with the Stevens party, upon viewing Father Ravalli’s work commented, “Good taste and harmony of proportions.”

The Cataldo Mission — now the oldest standing building in Idaho — was a special place for Ravalli, a safe place for a long time. It was a glorious, primitive path and a kind of leafy, sun-dappled, mosquito-infested, hilly heaven. Certainly, for at least a few triumphant moments, he felt peace there.

In 1866, Father Ravalli returned to St. Mary’s in the Bitterroot. A new church was needed, and he took on the job of designing, supervising, and decorating it. He designed, built, and decorated the altar using colors the Indians concocted from berries, indigo, and vermillion, and the chrome of eastern Montana caves. In his hands, extremities of a sculptor, a cottonwood tree became a figurine of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

This ingenious priest also constructed a statue of Saint Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, which stands in the church today. Over a frame of molded metal he draped canvas, shaped it like a robe, or cassock, and then painted it with black tar to resemble a “blackrobe” – the Indian name for Jesuit missionaries. He then carved the life-like face and hands holding a missal, which he also fashioned.

From Tomaso, his cat, Father Ravalli plucked tail hairs for his paintbrushes. Tin cans and cracker boxes provided material for wall protectors and tabernacles, and cigar boxes became little drawers, part of the unique desk he used in his home, now on display at the Mission Center. The books he acquired were a lending library for the community.

With a hand lathe he fabricated an altar railing, made a baptismal font, and painted the Stations of the Cross on burlap. Completed by the end of 1866, the chapel was now large enough for Indians and whites to worship together; the Indians situated on the floor, the whites on benches in the back and in the gallery.

This is the present chapel on the grounds of the restored mission complex, in Stevensville, Montana — the oldest permanently settled community in the state — where Father Ravalli’s artistry remains. All, but the stations on burlap, lost to time, are preserved there.

Father Ravalli never spared himself in serving the Indians and the white settlers who had moved into the community and surrounding area. Stevensville pioneer Elijah Chaffin and his family became Father Ravalli’s close friends; so close that Father referred to the Chaffin’s house as his “second home,” and once sent word with “Lige” to tell Mrs. Chaffin to “put on a pot of beans.”

From the little cabin he built as a home, he dispensed medicines through the first walk-in pharmacy in Montana. He often hospitalized patients at his home. Once he traveled 80 miles to Cottonwood (now Deer Lodge) to care for a man with a broken jaw. From the blacksmith he obtained the smallest drill in stock and some fine wire. He drilled a small hole in each side of the fracture, ran the wire through the holes and cinched the ends together, then molded a tight splint made from tin to the man’s face, and then covered it with a bandage. The man recovered quite nicely.

Frozen toes, fingers, arms, and legs were quite common during severe winters. Father Ravalli often amputated them when they couldn’t be salvaged.

The isolation, brutal winters, and frontier hardships all took their toll on this dedicated man. Once he did not receive a letter from home for three years. When asked if he had ever desired to return to Italy for a visit, he replied morosely, “Yes, once I could have had that pleasure, but then the sacrifice would not have been complete.”

Though multitalented, Father Ravalli had difficulty learning the Indian languages. Consequently, he was rarely called upon to give a sermon. In 1879, the Good Samaritan suffered a stroke.

A stroke in 1879 left him partially paralyzed. Still, he ministered from a cot rigged into a wagon that a kind friend, of whom he had many, drove him to make house calls. After five years of debilitating paralysis, he died at home at 8:00 a.m. on October 2, 1884.

Before he passed, he felt very honored and humbled when the Northern Pacific Railroad Company named a station located at a fork in the road leading to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, “Ravalli.” When asked if he had ever seen a railroad, Father replied,” I have some knowledge of them from the old country.”

In 1893, the Montana Legislature split Missoula County and named the southern portion “Ravalli” in honor of this incredible man. Additionally, copper magnate Marcus Daly named one if his fillies “Ravalli”, and a street in Stevensville also bears the name Ravalli. During World War One, a liberty ship bore the name “Ravalli.”

Finally, on March 16, 2005, some 120 years after his death, Father Anthony J. Ravalli was inducted by the Montana Historical Society into the “Gallery of Outstanding Montanans” in a ceremony at the State Capitol in Helena. Colleen Meyer, Director of St. Mary’s, accepted the bestowal on behalf of the mission and Ravalli at the ceremony.

“It was both thrilling and rewarding to accept this acknowledgment,” said Meyer. “It’s a great and well-deserved honor for Father Ravalli because he left such an influence on Montana. He was revered and loved by both the Salish Indians and the white settlers. He traveled near and far treating both spiritual and medical needs. He was a truly remarkable man.”

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About Brian D'Ambrosio

  • As we consider moving to Ravalli County, I wondered where Ravalli came from or what Ravalli means.

    Thanks for the Biographical information. It’s a good name.