The Ursuline Conference and Retreat Centre at 2300 Central Avenue in Great Falls is celebrating their 100th birthday this year. The centre was built by the Ursuline Sisters and used to be called the Ursuline Academy. The Ursuline nuns taught girls only when the building was first constructed, then expanded to also teach boys. A Junior College was added to the education offerings in 1932.
Harry Tholen, Ursuline director, jokes that he has been at the Centre since he was in fourth grade – when he first attended school for boys. Tholen noted that the facility is used for overnight stays, daytime and evening meetings and retreats.
I’m always amazed by the outside architecture when I drive up to the Ursuline. The building sits back from the sidewalks and the grounds are impeccably groomed. The outside of the building features gargoyles that work to take rainwater off the structure. A small tube is in the mouth of each gargoyle so the moisture drains away from the building’s foundation.
We began our tour with Kristi Scott, development director at the Ursuline. She showed us the marble staircase, marble wainscotting, brass handrails and alabaster light fixture in the stairwell where women would enter to begin their sisterhood.
The third floor chapel was lit beautifully by outside light. It was almost noon when we were there and you can see the wonderful sunlight filtering through the gold colored stained glass windows which are on both sides of the chapel.
Mother Raphael Schweda painted the murals hung behind the altar. There are still daily services in the chapel.
One room near the chapel has a stage, a baby grand piano and a grand piano. Practice rooms line the entire length of the room on both sides. Two practice rooms are set with displays showing how they would have been used when the nuns were teaching here.
A child care and child development center are housed in part of the Ursuline today so this education facility still continues their mission.
One 86-year old sister still lives at the Ursuline and is working as an archivist for the Ursuline Order.
We climbed the “art tower” stairs to the fifth floor of this building (way up!) where Mother Raphael Schweda taught art classes for over 50 years.
The first thing I noticed was the impressive view of Great Falls. Gosh, you can see forever when you are in a 5th story tower which is mainly windows. What a perfect place to study painting!
Our tour guide noted that there wasn’t plumbing up in the art tower so students had to carry water up five flights of stairs just to clean their paintbrushes. That’s dedication.
I really have two favorite areas of the Ursuline Centre – the art studio of Mother Raphael Schweda is certain one favorite. My other favorite is called the Heritage Museum. This large second floor room has many Indian artifacts, quite a few from St. Peters Mission between present-day Cascade and Fort Shaw. These artifacts were gifts to the Ursuline Sisters and some were used as payment to attend school. Musical instruments and many antiques are also displayed throughout the Heritage Museum. Some of the antiques have such great detail – when you think that this furniture traveled over the prairie and survived the ride, it’s pretty amazing.
While our group was buy touring the Ursuline Centre, the director was off property receiving a 100 Year Legacy award. Brick and mortar restoration is underway on the building and a considerable amount of money has been invested in the building to keep it in excellent condition.
If you’re looking to see some unique history, you can schedule historical tours of the Ursuline Centre. Or plan your Mother’s Day to attend their annual brunch and tour.