Beyond Spirit Tailings

Beyond Spirit Tailings

by Ellen Baumler

Passed down through generations, these stories illustrate the subtle presence of the past in the everyday lives of modern Montanans.
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Passed down through generations, these stories illustrate the subtle presence of the past in the everyday lives of modern Montanans.

Product Details

Montana Historical Society Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

Ellen Baumler is an award-winning writer and serves as the interpretive historian for the Montana Historical Society. Her other books include Spirit Tailings: Ghost Tales of Virginia City, Butte, and Helena and Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan, both from the Montana Historical Society Press.

Read an Excerpt

An urban legend commonly told in Helena involves Father Paul B. Kirchen, one of Carroll College's most revered professors. Besides teaching languages there from 1929 until his retirement in 1973, Father Kirchen was a familiar community figure known for championing the downtrodden and outcast. He fed transients who camped behind the college in the 1950s, collecting student leftovers to distribute among the men, which earned them the nickname "backdoor alumni." Everything he had he gave away, including a coat off his back that once belonged to a bishop. He distributed his Social Security checks to the needy, saying, "It's God's money." The priest continued his cause well after retirement, walking all over town in shoes that didn't fit him to visit the poor. He also had a way of enlisting aid from the people of Helena, coaxing people into giving him rides around town so he could do his work. "He was irresistible," said former Helena mayor Russ Ritter. "People never refused him anything."

When the beloved father died of a heart attack in 1989, the entire community mourned. Flags at Carroll and over city offices flew at half-mast in remembrance of the saintly priest who, just a week before his death, had still been calling on Helena's needy.

After the father's death, unusual stories about him began to emerge. People reported sighting an elderly priest walking the streets of Helena. He wore shoes that were too big for him. Occasionally, someone would recount the story of an aged father soliciting rides from passing motorists. The motorist would stop, the priest would climb into the backseat, and the driver would take him to whatever destination he requested. Upon stopping to discharge the passenger, however, the driver would discover that the backseat was empty.

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