The Sistine Chapel is a long way from the Flathead Reservation in Montana. However, the St. Ignatius Mission Church also places a lot of value on its prized ceiling and the frescoes that adorn it. So who was the Michelangelo of the mountains? Brother Joseph Carignano, an amateur artist and the mission’s cook and handyman, painted all the works over a 14-month span.
The mission’s history predates the church, and even this location. Famed Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet founded St. Ignatius Mission with Peter McGean and Andrew Hoecken in what is now Idaho in 1845, however, due to adverse conditions and at the behest of Chief Tmɫx̣ƛ̓cín (or Chief Alexander) of the Upper Kalispel Tribe of the Salish nation, they moved to Montana in 1854. The mission and town of St. Ignatius grew together in the shadows of the newly named Mission Mountain range, and the current Gothic Revival church was built in 1891. The building took two years to complete, and building materials were sourced from local bricks and milled trees.
The ceilings and walls of the building remained bare until Carignano arrived in 1903. He had been assigned to missions across the Pacific Northwest, and although he had no formal training, he had painted Renaissance-inspired works in the past at local schools and churches. At St. Ignatius, while working primarily as a cook, he completed 58 frescoes across the church’s ceilings and walls. The frescoes depict religious scenes, such as the three visions of the mission’s namesake, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Other works are inspired by Salish imagery, including paintings of the Salish Lord, and the Lord’s mother, in indigenous form.
In addition to the church, other buildings at the site tell the story of life at St. Ignatius Mission. Exhibits include the convent of the Sisters of Providence, established in 1864, as well as the first log cabin church at the mission, which is now home to the museum. The museum includes artifacts of the mission’s work with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, and serves as a welcome to Snyel̓mn, the “place where something is surrounded.”