By Jamie Balke Explore Big Sky Columnist
From Interstate 90, my limited observations of Butte sparked such thoughts as, “That must be the Superfund site where those geese died,” and, “I wonder what the Virgin Mary is doing up on that mountain.” This summer, I began learning about, and falling in love with, this fascinating and compelling town.
I had taken some time off from work after a July relay-running race, so coworkers wouldn’t see me rocking in the fetal position and whimpering about never running again. During my recuperation, I made some daytrips around the state to places that I’ve wanted to explore. Butte was high on this list and, not knowing where to start, I signed my boyfriend Aaron and I up for a trolley tour of the historic city.
This was a delightful experience involving interesting sights and stories, and our tour guide was knowledgeable and hilarious. We even stopped at the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine, which is now a Superfund site. Seeing this gigantic pit was a surreal experience for someone with little knowledge of mining, such as myself. After taking this tour I immediately began planning my next visit to Butte.
A few weeks later, I convinced a friend to accompany me for a tour of Our Lady of the Rockies, a statue of the Virgin Mary atop the continental divide overlooking Butte. The Lady was completed in 1985 after six years of construction. What I had expected to be a day trip to a curiosity ended up being a surprisingly profound experience.
The tour’s meeting point was at the gift shop, and after paying the fee we were directed to the informational video viewing area. The show begins with footage of people standing next to Our Lady of the Rockies, weeping with joy at the completion of the statue. I’ll admit that I can be cynical, and don’t consider myself a religious person. But I’ll also admit that by the end of the video I was hoping no one noticed I had been crying as well.
From what I remember through the tears, the project started when a man decided to build a statue of the Virgin Mary after his wife’s recovery from illness. Over time, the project grew in scale to what is now the 90-foot-tall effigy overlooking Butte, America. The sincerity and good intentions of interviewees were overwhelming.
After the video, we piled into the van and met our guide who, coincidently, had actually helped to build the statue. Welcoming, engaging, and a wealth of information, he shared stories of his experiences as he drove us up the steep road through a beautiful forest to the statue.
It was a cool, cloudy day, and the sky provided a dramatic backdrop as we made our way towards Our Lady of the Rockies. The visit was made all the more beautiful by its history as a labor of love and sense of community. I approached the statue feeling a bit in awe, and with a tremendous amount of respect for those who had realized this dream.
The guide explained that Our Lady of the Rockies is nondenominational, and was built to honor all women, especially mothers. Normally, a statement like this would cause my cynical hackles to rise, but all I could think was, “That is really nice.”
Small replicas of Our Lady of the Rockies now rest atop Balke’s dresser, as well as that of her mother’s.