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Saint Mary’s in the Mountains remains a beacon in Virginia City.
Photo: Jay Aldrich (above), Patrick Kennedy (below)
Her gold cross and spire crown the Comstock from any direction, white tower gleaming in the sun. When lit by dozens of lights at night, she becomes a heavenly beacon. Saint Mary’s in the Mountains church has been a staple in Virginia City for nearly 150 years.
The first Saint Mary’s was built in the early 1860s, not far from the present sanctuary, but it wasn’t until Father Patrick Manogue arrived that the church became a fixture in serving the thousands of Welsh and Irish Catholic miners who worked the Comstock Lode. Manogue was no stranger to mining. A native of County Kilkenney, Ireland, he traveled to California in 1854 to find his fortune in the Gold Rush.
There, in the camps, he realized his vocation for religious work. He used his earnings to study for the priesthood in Paris, where he was ordained in 1861 and assigned the territory of Nevada as his parish. Interestingly, money placed in donation jars set in the town’s saloons largely financed the next Saint Mary’s, built under the stewardship of Manogue. A few years later the wood-framed church escaped devastation by fire. Even though it was still intact, Manogue knew that the time had come for a bigger, more substantial church for his growing congregation.
The third Saint Mary’s, erected at the church’s present location, was built from approximately 350,000 bricks that were manufactured by the Kerrin & Company factory of Virginia City. The cornerstone was laid on August 18, 1868 in a grand ceremony led by Bishop Eugene O’Connell of Grass Valley and Manogue. A new bell would chime from the steeple, which, according to local newspapers, was the largest in the West “between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Missouri River.” Weighing over a ton, with a 100-pound clapper, it was rung at 6 a.m. on October 23, 1870, announcing the day the first Mass was to be celebrated. Manogue officiated before an elaborate altar imported from France. More than two stories tall and weighing 6,700 pounds, it was decorated with the 12 apostles and embellished in the Gothic style. The High Mass was surrounded by pomp and ceremony, including the Emmet Guard, an Irish military company.
Five years later in 1875, Virginia City was home to 35,000 people, many living in boardinghouses while rotating shifts in the mines. On October 26, at an A Street boardinghouse, a lamp was knocked over, igniting what came to be known as the Great Fire. Comstock volunteer firefighting companies hurried out into the night, racing to hook their hoses to hydrants, but the water was frozen. Helplessly, they watched as the flames expanded to engulf almost the entire town.
John Mackay, partner in the Con-Virginia, site of the Big Bonanza, could only think of his mine just north of Saint Mary’s. He insisted a firebreak had to be blasted to prevent the conflagration from reaching the massive hoisting works and miles of wooden square sets below ground. According to legend, he wanted to set sticks of dynamite in Saint Mary’s foundation—the wall of rubble would act as a firebreak. But the fire reached Saint Mary’s first and consumed her spire, roof, and sanctuary; the brick walls still stood.
Like the proverbial Phoenix, Virginia City rose from the ashes. Most of the historic buildings you see in town today were built in 1876 or later. Damage to the church was estimated to be $60,000—$6 million today.
On Sunday, September 16, 1877, the surviving bell of Saint Mary’s called parishioners to her rededication following the devastating fire. To prevent another loss from fire, one of the first modern sprinkler systems was installed on the roof. Inside the church, marble angels held holy water fonts. An enormous bronze baptismal font, saved in the fire, awaited christenings.
From California, redwood pews and columns, a choir loft, and galleries filled the sanctuary; along with a new altar and Brussels carpets. An opulent, bronze chandelier lit the church with gas jets. Intricate needlepoint “paintings” of Mary and the saints were stitched by the Daughters of Charity, and a large oil painting of Mary and Joseph in the hills of Judea, visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, was placed over the main altar—thus the Saint Mary’s in the Mountains we know today. In the dedication that day, Father Bouchard said, “Saint Mary’s will last for as long as the mountains which surround it.”
During the days when the Comstock earned its fame as the “richest place on earth,” Saint Mary’s served 3,000-5,000 Irish and Welsh miners and their families. By 1890, the mines were played out, and Virginia City was a shadow of its former glory. Sixty years later, Cistercian monks “modernized” Saint Mary’s, removing many of the Gothic decorations, as well as the choir loft and stained glass windows. The community was aghast. The church’s structural integrity was compromised over the following decades, due to the loss of the loft, and Saint Mary’s was in need of serious restoration. Many hoped to right the wrongs of the “Mad Monks.”
Father Paul Meinecke accomplished quite a bit in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until Nick Nicosia became administrator of Saint Mary’s that the reconstruction the church needed was accomplished. With grant money and private donations that Nicosia secured, a multimillion-dollar restoration and retrofit began in 2008. “Over 877 families from all 50 states contributed to restoring the Mother of all Catholic churches in Nevada,” Nicosia says. Engineered by Ferrari-Shields & Associates and designed by Mercedes de la Garza, an internal structure was built within the walls to provide seismic stability. The choir loft was restored, a new roof was installed, and hundreds of other details were addressed to bring the church back to her original state. History buffs will enjoy the basement museum, which is a treasure trove of photographs and artifacts documenting the church.
On September 12, 2009, hundreds of Catholics and devotees of the restoration project came to Virginia City for the celebratory High Mass. According to Randolph R. Calvo, Bishop of Reno, who officiated that day, “Saint Mary’s serves as a monument for us. It serves as monuments are supposed to do; they engage us in a conversation with history—past, present, and future.”
Saint Mary’s in the Mountains
111 E St., Virginia City
WORTH A READ
Nevada’s Bonanza Church,
Saint Mary’s in the Mountains
by Virgil A. Bucchianeri
$11.95 at the Saint Mary’s gift shop