The present church of Saint Francis Xavier was opened on October 9, 1892.
As early as 1851, beginning with the establishment of St. Mary’s Mission in the Bitterroot Valley, the Jesuit fathers fulfilled the charge of the American bishops to care for the Native Americans. For years, settlers in the Missoula valley had petitioned the Jesuits for pastoral care as well. These Catholics contracted their diocesan authorities who, in 1881, were able to establish a Jesuit Church in Missoula.
On August 9, 1891, the Jesuits laid the cornerstone for the largest church constructed in Montana at that time. It was completed by October of 1892. Thus within a decade, through the work of Fr. Alexander Diomedi, S.J. and others, the Society of Jesus had established the new parish and had organized the design and construction of a new and significant church building – the Church of St. Francis Xavier as we see it today.
Spatially, St. Francis Xavier Church is unified and harmonious. The nave arcades are bridged by a barrel vault that ends in the half-dome above the apse. A cornice crowning the arcade runs in an unbroken line around the semicircular apse in the fashion of sixteenth-century Baroque churches, creating a more unified space by joining the sanctuary area with that of the congregation.
The artwork of St. Francis Xavier Church is unique because it was a tremendous artistic effort by one man to graphically depict all of Christian belief to a community of Christians far from the center of Christian worship. The church interior became a visual catechism and a celebration of The Faith, representing a unified vision in a harmonious composition.
To Christians, St. Francis Xavier Church symbolizes the continuity of a 2,000 year old religious tradition. Brother Joseph Carignano, S.J., painted the church walls with images serving many religious purposes: a pictorial study of scripture stories, a portrayal of all the symbols of the liturgy, and an inspiration to imitate the lives of the saints and to follow the example of Jesus.
The colors that Brother Carignano chose transformed the church interior into a place like no other the congregation had known; a heavenly realm, a warm counterpoint to the grey winter light of an often overcast valley. To enter the great brick church, where ornate gift scroll-work on walls and capitals reflected any ray of light, must have been to step into a sparkling and brilliant vision compared to the harsh and rugged existence of those early pioneers in the great Rocky Mountain West.