VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. (CNS) — You can still hear gunfights on the streets of this old mining town high up in the mountains of Northern Nevada. The main drag at 6,000 feet above sea level plays up the stereotype of an old Western town complete with a saloon next to the jail and the marshal’s office. Behind them, the steeple of St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church unintentionally peers above.
The parish was created in 1862, just three years after the discovery of a lode of silver ore, known as the Comstock Lode, was made public, bringing in prospectors seeking to make fortunes. But the Catholic Church had been attracted to the remote town before the discovery, as members were seeking to make a spiritual fortune out the boon of people flocking there.
St. Mary’s in the Mountains, say various signs posted around the Gothic church, once was known as the “Bonanza Church” because of the silver mines that surrounded it. The first Catholic church in the town was built in 1860 but burned down shortly after. The church that visitors see today was erected in 1868, was damaged by a fire, too, but was rebuilt in 1876. It is recognized as a national Catholic historic site.
Daughters of Charity, as well as Cistercian monks played part of the landscape of Catholics that once called the mining church home. But as the mining industry dwindled, so did the town and the church population. These days, St. Mary’s may see more visitors than parishioners, but the church and its museum in the basement of the church is one of the top attractions in the town.
Part of the museum reflects the church’s mining roots. A small cavernous room resembles a mine, where Catholic memorabilia — including the redwood saws used to cut square timbers that lined the mines of the Comstock, as well as the interior of the church — are on display. There’s also a sanctuary bell that arrived in Nevada with the first missionary nun from the order of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters. There’s also a mural on the stucco walls featuring important church figures in Nevada’s Catholic history, including Raider, the official parish cat.
Though it’s clear that the town’s, as well as the local church’s, heyday has passed, St. Mary’s in the Mountains remains an active parish and one that keeps alive the spiritual history of a Catholic past in a remote mining town.
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