Colleen Meyer, a mainstay at Historic St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville, will be stepping down as Executive Director on December 31. She has been in that position for 21 years.
Meyer started volunteering in 1988, when the late Lucylle Evans was the director. Evans had petitioned the state legislature to have the kick-off for the Montana State Centennial at St. Mary’s Mission (established in 1841) and the petition was granted. The kick-off happened 33 years ago on the Mission grounds, kicking off a year of celebrations throughout Montana for the 1989 centennial. On November 8, 1989, the grand celebration was held at the State Capitol and Meyer and her husband Jay were there.
Prior to that, Meyer had been a stay-at-home mom, raising three children with her schoolteacher husband on their ranch west of Stevensville. She became a volunteer at the Mission “on a small scale,” she says, for about nine years, helping with tours.
In 1997, when the visitor center opened, she was hired by Evans as a full-time tour guide. “Unfortunately, I could never learn enough from Lucylle before she passed away in fall of 1999. There were so many questions I wanted to ask.”
Being the only other employee, the board of directors asked Meyer to take on the executive director position. That was 21 years ago.
According to Meyer, the work of restoration and preservation at the St. Mary’s Mission is a never-ending endeavor with five buildings to take care of, but there are some projects that stand out to her during her tenure. A diorama with life-sized wood carvings of Chief Big Face, Chief Victor and Father DeSmet is one. A Salish Encampment was created through an Indian Education For All grant. Chris Weatherly, a local preservation specialist, built a replica of a Red River Ox Cart, which was the first-ever wheeled cart to come into what is now Montana. Chief Victor’s Cabin, the oldest (1862) building on site, has been restored.
“The outdoor exhibits have created a lot of interest,” said Meyer, “even if visitors don’t take a formal tour. Hopefully, it will prompt them to come back for a tour.”
With Meyer at the helm, the Mission developed the Opening Day Ceremony, which kicks off the Mission season around April 15th every spring. Founders Day was a very successful event for about 10 years, culminating with the 175th anniversary celebration of the community’s founding.
This year the Mission is celebrating 180 years, and to mark that a Saturday Series was held for 10 months with a different speaker each month. “It was very well attended,” said Meyer.
And of course, constant attention must be directed at fundraising. “We’ve had cow pie bingo, dinner-dances, breakfasts, raffles, and auctions.” The Mission participates in the Spuds R Us food booth at the Ravalli County Fair. And numerous grants have been written and received.
There was also community involvement and outreach. Meyer went to Civic Club and Main Street Association meetings, and brought the message about the mission to groups outside Stevensville, like Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce.
There are the exhibits that need to be dealt with. “We have new old exhibits. Because we’re not a large museum, we try to change things around and create new interest with the items that we do have. Recently, we’ve acquired through a connection in Illinois bronze busts of Father DeSmet and Father Ravalli for the museum exhibit,” said Meyer.
School tours are a big part of the Mission’s spring and fall activities. “We encourage teachers to bring their classes here,” said Meyer. “Because of the Indian Education for All grant, the Salish education that we provide is approved by the Office of Public Instruction, and our field trip qualifies for their required curriculum on this subject.”
On the first weekend of December, coinciding with Stevensville’s Country Christmas celebration, there is a Nativity Exhibit. People loan their nativities and every year there is quite an unusual collection. This year, there will also be snow globes exhibited.
Over the past few years, Meyer has been mentoring another volunteer, Dora Bradt, who will take over as Executive Director on January 1. “I am very pleased to welcome Dora into the position,” said Meyer.
Meyer plans to continue volunteering at the Mission. An appreciation dinner was held for her on November 6th, at which there was an outpouring of praise for all that Meyer has done for St. Mary’s Mission and the community.
“I have grown both spiritually and personally through this beautiful career,” said Meyer.