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Bozeman's oldest church rings in Easter with a view of the whole valley

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It was carried by steamboat along the muddy waters of the Missouri River to Fort Benton.

From there the church bell was loaded onto an oxcart where it bumped roughly 200 miles over mountains and through valleys until it reached Bozeman in 1869.

The bell was bound for one of the first framed buildings in town on the corner of Main and Tracy. The simple 24-foot by 36-foot structure with slab seats and a sawdust floor was constructed in 1866 and would become the town’s first church, Bozeman Methodist Episcopal Church.

Six years later in 1872, construction began at the corner of Willson Avenue and Olive Street for what would be the lasting home of what is now the Bozeman United Methodist Church. Although it’s gone through a few renovations in the 20th century, parts of the original building still stand, including the original corner stone.

Oldest Church in Bozeman

The Bozeman United Methodist Church on the corner of South Willson Avenue and West Olive Street is the oldest church in Bozeman.

The bell that traveled via steamboat and oxcart now resides in its bell tower.

“We’ve been here for 155-plus years and I really say that we have been a part of this valley and will continue to be so,” said Rev. Eric Strader.

With a history that extends to the early days of Bozeman, the church is no stranger to navigating a pandemic.

During the pandemic of 1918, Strader said, the church suspended in-person worship, just as it did more than a century later when COVID-19 swept around the world.

“Despite the plural pandemics we’ve experienced, it’s continued to be here and continued to serve the privileged and the vulnerable,” Strader said.

Oldest Church in Bozeman

The stone wall in the basement of the Bozeman United Methodist Church is one of the oldest parts of the building, built in 1874.

By mid-March 2020, the church had moved its services to Facebook Live, and last year’s Easter service was livestreamed. In the past year, Strader said they’ve held a few in-person events and services but have primarily remained a virtual congregation.

“One of our tenets is we first do no harm,” Strader said. “Bringing people together, we just felt wasn’t safe and we needed to make sure we care for each other.”

In the past year, the congregation has found other ways to support each other, including front-porch-grocery drop offs, front-porch visits, programs that connect different generations and a weekly mental health moment.

Strader said the church is in the process of upgrading the sanctuary to launch hybrid virtual and in-person services, including updating lights and installing new cameras. There will be a limit for how many people can attend services in-person with the hybrid model, which is expected to launch on May 2.

Oldest Church in Bozeman

The Bozeman United Methodist Church on the corner of South Willson Avenue and West Olive Street is the oldest church in Bozeman.

“We want to create an experience where people can worship together whether in-person or online,” Strader said.

The church’s Easter Sunday service will also look different compared to past years. While congregants have the option of an online service, the church will also host a sunrise service in-person at 7 a.m. on Peets Hill.

Like any institution well past its first century, the church has its own set of stories and legends. Strader recounted one involving the bell: Before it resided in a tower, it was placed outside the churchyard.

Oldest Church in Bozeman

The Bozeman United Methodist Church on the corner of South Willson Avenue and West Olive Street is the oldest church in Bozeman.

One day, the pastor at the time set out to visit a parishioner. When an unexpected snowstorm swept through the valley, the pastor was unable to find his way back in the swirling cold. Worried about him, a lady at the church rang the bell until he was able to find his way back.

From steamboat to oxcart to a churchyard calling a lost pastor back, the bell was eventually placed in its own tower where it still resides.

“You can see the whole of the valley from the bell tower,” Strader said. “And we’ll be able to see the whole of the valley from Peets Hill on Sunday.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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