HELENA, MONTANA, USA – We drove on icy highways past plains covered in layers of snow, tall yellow grasses peeking out, flurries making the road in front of us difficult to see. When sun shone and the skies were blue we would speed through Wyoming, marveling at the shimmering earth around us. When snow began to fall we would chug along slowly, taking care as we watched the white surrounding us through the windows.
As we said goodbye to Wyoming and entered Montana, we decided to stop in Helena. My friend, who had lived there before, felt certain I would enjoy visiting one particular place in town. My camera was ready.
The city was a small capitol, with a quiet and relatively empty downtown area. We drove past this and up onto a slight hill, upon which rested a grey stone building with stained glass windows and red pointed peaks. The cold wind bit into us as we left the warm refuge of the car and rushed up the steps to the large wooden doors that promised entrance on the main facade.
“Wait,” my friend said, turning me to look towards the distant sloping mountains. “Can you see the sleeping giant?” They motioned an outline with their finger. I squinted at the slopes and peaks until finally I saw it: the brow ridge, the nose, the mouth, the chest. You had to look for it, but it was there. The mountains created the illusion of a sleeping giant.*
We met this view as we entered St. Helena’s cathedral.
It was here that I realized what promise America might hold when it comes to architecture (that actually interested me). Obsessed with cathedrals I had ventured into all over Europe but never having entered one before my first trip abroad, I did not realize that here in my home country there might be some similar structures worth marveling over. I had been to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco once, but thought it was a rarity. The Central Valley of California never offered much in the way of cathedrals. I had never been too interested in what I had seen growing up in the United States, and was therefore uninterested in discovery in the United States – of any kind. St. Helena, in some small way, helped remedy that.
I returned to Helena months later and had my heart set on visiting the cathedral again. I walked in as a late Sunday morning mass was finishing, and waited for the service to end at the back of the nave. As people said their final “amen” and began filing out, an old man came up to me and welcomed me. He knew I was a stranger.
“Are you Catholic?” he asked me.
“I don’t know what I am, if anything.”
He nodded. “Be Catholic.”
I smiled at him. “I just might, if it means I get to spend more time in structures like this.”
Chuckling, he told me the story behind the stained glass windows and the history of Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. He seemed very well known, and people kept stopping to speak with him. After informing me of his ideas on early Christian history, he motioned for me to join him in witnessing a baptism. The glowing young parents looked on, the priest said his words, the child was sprinkled with water.
The man turned to me and smiled. “Be Catholic,” he said again, and waved goodbye.
The cathedral emptied completely. I found a small chapel near the front of the church and sat there for half an hour, studying images of the saints in the stained glass.