Settlements like the small village of Canton sprang up in the 1860s to serve ranchers and farmers in the Missouri River Valley. By 1872, Canton boasted a mercantile, post office, saloon and dance hall, a doctor, and a hotel. Scattered settlers came together to construct this simple, eloquent Colonial style church in 1875-76. Paid for with community donations and built by ninety volunteer lay laborers, the church was dedicated on October 22, 1876.
It is the state’s oldest standing Roman Catholic church not built by a religious order. The style, rarely found in Montana, reflects the roots of many local settlers who hailed from Canton, New York, and elsewhere back east. Arched windows with decorative moldings and a fan light over the original four-panel entry doors (now enclosed in the vestibule) are elements of this style. The Northern Pacific bypassed Canton in favor of Townsend in the 1880s, but the addition of the steeple and vestibule in 1902 document continued growth of the congregation.
After World War II, federal officials planned to upgrade Canyon Ferry Dam and raise the reservoir. In its path lay 4,000 farm acres and the village of Canton. In 1952, St. Joseph’s was moved two and a half miles to this location before water swallowed the land. The church, now near St. Joseph’s Cemetery where many of its founding members rest, became a focal point for the displaced community. The Canton Church Project, organized in 1996 with the help of the Catholic Diocese of Helena, today maintains the church. Members include descendants of the pioneer congregation.
Visit the Historic Canton Church website at https://canton-church.org