As the fourth largest statue in the United States and the largest Lady Madonna in the whole of the country, Our Lady of the Rockies is truly a sight to behold.
Ready to learn more about this beautiful – and perhaps contentious – site in the heart of the Northern Rocky Mountains, as well as nearby attractions? Let’s get into it!
Our Lady of the Rockies – A Complete Guide
- History of Our Lady of the Rockies
- Controversy & Community Efforts
- Nearby Attractions
- Our Lady of the Rockies Facts
History of Our Lady of the Rockies
Over 8,500 feet above sea level, the peaceful Mother Mary watches over the central Montana town of Butte, once a silver mining camp and copper producer in years past.
Perched on a mountainous ridge of private land, the likeness of Mary can be seen both day and night by residents and travelers alike.
But what’s the story behind her creation and construction?
Conceived by Butte resident Bob O’Bill in 1979 as a tribute to Mother Mary upon the recovery of his wife from a cancer scare, the statue was completed and unveiled in December of 1985.
Claiming to be dedicated to all women, especially mothers, the eponymous Mary statue has certainly had its share of controversy over the years – but let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Declaring he would erect a statue to the Virgin Mary if his wife survived her rigorous cancer treatment and illness, the dedicated husband and mining electrician’s building process went into effect a few days after Christmas in 1979.
Largely a community-funded effort, the statue was constructed largely via money donations, material donations, and applied labor.
Luckily for O’Bill, the retired engineer Laurien Eugene Riehl offered to donate his time and heart to the project, amplifying its efforts and success.
Maybe most importantly, Riehl’s work stabilized the inside of the statue, reinforcing it and helping it withstand the high Continental Divide winds.
Poured with 400 tons of concrete in late 1985, a Nevada Air National Guard team lifted the statue to its new homebase – very carefully! – in four completed sections.
It was truly a community effort to erect, with thousands of onlookers around to watch the spectacle.
These days, Our Lady of the Rockies has a gift shop, a dedicated chapel, daily in-person tours, and a bus tour ranging from $10 to $25.
People travel from around the world to view this marvel of human resilience and community togetherness.
Controversy & Community Efforts
Here’s an interesting fact: Butte once hosted ten Catholic churches and numerous Catholic schools, making it a rich home for Catholics in the mine and elsewhere.
But not everyone in the town has been pleased with Our Lady of the Rockies. Even in the initial creative process, many scoffed at the possibility of such a large undertaking.
Once a booming town, Butte had been hit hard by international mining and copper out branching, grappling with a new normal. This alone was enough to convince some Butte residents that this was an outlandish and expensive operation.
Why couldn’t O’Bill just create a small shrine to Mother Mary and call it a day, they wondered? But as history clearly shows, a community effort blossomed around the build, one that emphasized a close-knit community and an underdog mentality.
With their build underway, entire families emerged to bulldoze and raise funds – to keep the project alive via their faith.
However, it was this same faith that created even more controversy. The freethinkers of the town did not hold the statue in the same high esteem, believing one religious group to be pushing its beliefs onto an entire town.
They didn’t want to wake up every morning to Butte’s answer to Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer – they just wanted their morning coffee.
Famous advice columnist Ann Landers even got in on the controversy, publishing a reader letter maintaining that exact sentiment. Even today, some residents take issue with the forced religiosity, while others try to ignore it.
Likewise, the Freedom From Religion Foundation made noise in August of 1994 due to one of its members’ notification that – in a display of church vs. state – state funds were planning to be used to create the site’s chapel.
This wasn’t going to fly with Butte residents, either, and the chapel plans got shut down. Learning their lesson, the current chapel comes from the same community effort that initiated the project.
And lastly, the summer of 2005 saw its own controversy when homeowners of Butte sued Our Lady of the Rockies over plans to build a tram through their neighborhood.
They created such loud noise that plans for the tram still remain unrealized – a testament to community efforts in an entirely different direction.
So, which is it? Is Butte’s Mother Mary statue a powerful display of resilience in the face of illness and town bankruptcy, or does it push one group’s religious beliefs on a diverse community?
We’ll let you be the ultimate decider on the topic, but it’s worth a visit to Butte to see for yourself.
World Museum of Mining
While in Butte, we highly recommend checking out the World Museum of Mining, which is one of the few museums in the world actually built on a mine – the Orphan Girl.
To get an even better look into the life of miners like Bob O’Bill and countless others, check out the Underground Mine Tour, or participate in the White Glove Tour to see exhibits typically exempt from public viewing (Who doesn’t love handling artifacts and feeling like an archaeologist!?).
And don’t miss Hell Roarin’ Gulch, a faithful recreation of the 1890s mining town of Butte.
Even better? The museum can take you on a spooky ghost tour – and it wouldn’t be hard to believe that there are ghosts in the area, given that at least 2,500 men died while working in the mines.
Whether you’re interested in the paranormal or a skeptic, the World Museum of Mining is a family favorite, and it’s best finished with a visit to Butte Brewing and Pizza Company – something for everyone (Open daily from 12pm till 8pm!).
More interested in frolicking in nature with Montana’s beautiful wildlife? Thompson Park is just nine miles south of Butte in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and it’s a treasure trove of outdoor activities.
Mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, unique rock formations – this place has it all.
And you won’t be lacking in trails to discover: the Milwaukee Railroad forms the base of this natural region, branching off into countless hiking and biking paths.
Bringing your own picnic? Thompson Park has plenty of spots to sit and relax alone or with your loved ones. Just remember that this spot is day use only – no overnight camping!
If you’d like to explore overnight camping or cabins in the Butte area, we recommend the pet-friendly Butte KOA Journey for a unique and memorable natural opportunity.
If we could recommend only one restaurant in Butte, it’s definitely going to be the long-standing Sparky’s Garage!
Founded in 2002, this local favorite lets you dine in the back of a Chevy Truck, enjoy the beautiful scenery, and enjoy some nice little touches. (Their napkins are old mechanic shop towels!)
We recommend their honey-infused cornbread, brisket sandwich, and wide selection of beers. Definitely a fun atmosphere after visiting Our Lady of the Rockies! Honorable mention for fancier fare: Uptown Cafe.
Our Lady of the Rockies Facts
- Our Lady of the Rockies stands at an impressive 90 feet tall, and she is 48 feet wide. (For reference, the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet tall!)
- Visitors often bring rosaries and notes containing prayers for friends and families to this now sacred site.
- The majestic statue sits 3,500 feet above the city of Butte – a loving protector.
- The bus ride to the site takes about an hour – but it’s worth it for the chapel and city overlook!
- People like to use the chapel for weddings or other events, or just as a quiet place to pray – but the chapel insisted that it is non-denominational.
- The statue is dedicated to women, the Divine Mother, and – of course – Bob O’Bill’s wife.
It’s clear that Our Lady of the Rockies has its supporters and detractors, but at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful statement of one man’s love for and faith in his wife.
Whether you’re a local or visiting on your way to Glacier National Park, you can’t miss Our Lady of the Rockies on your way through Butte – for better or worse.
And you’ll have plenty to do while in the area – horseback riding, heading back into the mining era, or even a ghost tour.
But don’t get too spooked while you’re in Butte: it’s home to people of all walks of life, the effervescent annual Montana Folk Festival, and a continually close-knit community. See you at the top of the mountain!