Our Lady of the Rockies: Catholicism and Environmental Reclamation

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, astride the Continental Divide, stands Butte, Montana. Industrial decline and environmental degradation have left their mark on this “black heart” of Montana—an industrial city in the center of the state’s pastoral ranch lands and wheat fields. Through corporate consolidation, technological advances, continuous labor struggles, and an influx of immigrants, Butte transformed from a nineteenth-century placer gold camp into an urban industrial center producing more copper ore than any mine in the world. In 1985, two years after the mines ceased all operation, a 90-foot tall, 48-foot wide, 51-ton statue of the Virgin Mary was air lifted in five massive pieces to her resting place 8,500 feet above sea level, where she now stands guard over the city and the toxic wasteland mining has left behind.

Our Lady of the Rockies acts as a dramatic focal object for Butte’s survival in a postindustrial setting. As a technological device that enfolds viewers into a larger assemblage, she invites viewers’ engagement through an economy of seeing and devotion. By interrogating her origins and material aspects, I reveal her role as an interactive agent in Butte’s social and religious history. 

Our Lady of the Rockies provides believers with a path away from the deteriorating industrial city and toward the transcendent. The close study of Our Lady offers a valuable example of the intersections of religion and materialism. She is a vibrant example of how religion, visual culture, and materiality engage each other and human participants in particular spaces and times. Arms open and beckoning on the mountainside above the ruins of Butte’s mining industry, Our Lady of the Rockies gestures to an entire world of history and devotion.