The first church service held in Gallatin County was by W. W. Alderson, a pioneer farmer, who had been licensed to preach in Illinois, and whose license was also issued in Montana. This service was at the cabin of Merritt W. Penwell and Oscar Penwell on East Gallatin, about 12 miles north of Bozeman on Sunday, June 4, 1865. Services were conducted again at the Penwell Ranch and in Bozeman by Mr. Alderson, who organized the first Sunday school at the log house known as the Masonic Building, in July 1866.
First Methodist Episcopal Church of Bozeman, built in 1866 and 1867.
Also Joe Merraville’s house where school was taught by Davis Willson in the
winter of 1867 and 1868.
The Rev. A. M. Hough, superintendent of Missions for the Methodist Episcopal Church in the territory, came to Bozeman, and on August 8, 1866, organized the Methodist Episcopal Church in the city, and plans were discussed for a church building. On August 9, a subscription list was started by W. W. Alderson, the original being in possession of Mrs. E. L. Houston, the names on the list including those of W. W. and John Alderson, W. J. Beall and D. E. Rouse, founders of the city, John M. Bozeman, Matthew Bird, John S. Mendenhall, Sanford Ruffner, W. H. Tracy, Nelson Story, M. W. Penwell, Davis Willson, Tuller and Rich, G. W. A. Frazier, F. F. Fridley and others.
Money was subscribed, and the building, costing about $2,500 was erected during the winter and spring of 1866 and ’67, for the Methodist Episcopal Church society. It was the first church built in Bozeman or in Gallatin Valley. Before the building was completed, church services and Sunday school were held in the log building, called the Masonic Hall. Before the floor was laid, a term of the district court was held in the church, with Hezekiah Hosmer, then chief justice of the supreme court of the territory, presiding. Gallatin County paid the trustees a warrant of $240 for use of the church building for two weeks, and the warrant was sold for 30 cents on the dollar, netting the church fund $72.
Uses of Building
During the winter of 1868 and ’69, a term of the district school was held in this church building, with Charles Kempster teacher, while a schoolhouse was being built. The church was used for regular services for the Methodist Episcopal Church and Sunday school, plastering and seating being accomplished through another subscription list in 1867 and ’68. Visiting ministers of other churches were extended courtesies in the use of the church, among them being the Right Reverend Daniel S. Tuttle, pioneer bishop of the Episcopal Church during his annual visits, ministers of the Presbyterian Church and other visitors.
When the brick church was started on what is now Willson Avenue and Olive Street, the lots were donated by W. W. Alderson, who turned over to the new pastor, the Rev. T. C. Iliff, subscriptions amounting to $4,000, and a loan of $2,000 from the church extension society. After this church was completed in 1875, the small frame church, which stood where the Gallatin Trust and Savings Bank was later erected, was sold to W. H. Tracy for $400, moved across the street, where it was used as a printing office for the Avant Courier for several months, then by Dr. S. H. Osborn for a drug store, and while so used, it was destroyed by fire in 1880.
Oldest Church Bell
The bell hanging in the tower of the M. E. Church was bought for $100 for the pioneer church in 1869, by a Helena firm that donated the freight from St. Louis to Helena, and Rich and Willson of Bozeman brought the bell from Helena free of charge. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest church bell in Montana.
Other Churches Started
The Rev. L. B. Stateler preached at Willow Creek and organized the Methodist Church South about the year 1866. Later, this church was established in Bozeman. The Presbyterian Church was organized in 1872; the Episcopal Church in 1875; the Baptist Church in 1883; the Disciples or Christian Church in 1887; the Roman Catholic Church erected their first church building in 1887, but priests had held services in Bozeman and other parts of Gallatin County previous to that time. Services were held in other cities and rural districts of the county, and several of these districts built churches in the seventies and eighties. Substantial church buildings have been erected in Bozeman by about ten denominations, and recent years have seen new buildings in various parts of the county.