Parishioners of St. Mary's in the Mountains Catholic Church in Virginia City are celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding with events this weekend.
The church is the first landmark that tourists notice in the historic mining town, about 20 miles southeast of Reno. It features Gothic architecture, a majestic steeple and spires, and beautiful stained glass windows.
"It really stands tall over the whole town," parishioner Liz Huntington told The Associated Press. "(It symbolizes) the Lord watching over the whole town."
The church, open every day of the year, is one of the top tourist draws in Virginia City and one of the most photographed buildings in Nevada.
"Arguably, it's in the top 10 statewide for most architecturally impressive buildings," former Nevada state Archivist Guy Rocha said. "Here you are in this mining town, and there's this church you would expect to find in a San Francisco, Boston or Chicago."
Nevada's first Catholic church was built in Virginia City in 1860. A wooden edifice, it collapsed in heavy winds the first winter.
The St. Mary's parish dates back to Sept. 14, 1862, making it the longest continuously active Catholic parish in Nevada, said church historian Patrick Neylan. The first brick Catholic church was built from 1868 to 1870, but was gutted by an 1875 fire that destroyed most of Virginia City.
The current church was built in 1876 and underwent major restoration in 2009. It features most of the walls of the earlier church — roughly 350,000 bricks in all, Neylan said.
The church's architecture was inspired by Father Patrick Manogue, first pastor of St. Mary's parish. Manogue traveled to the great cathedrals of Europe while studying for the priesthood in France.
"It's still the house of God and inspires amazing feelings out of all visitors who come here," Neylan said. "It's an unexpected sight for visitors. It shows the heritage of Virginia City, a different side of the town that you don't see in movies."
In the 1880s, Manogue became founding bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., and oversaw the construction of a splendid cathedral there.
The Nevada church is a testimony to the wealth generated during the 19th century mining boom on the Comstock Lode, a massive, underground pocket of silver and gold that produced one of the world's greatest bonanzas and led to Nevada's statehood in 1864.
It's also a reminder of how many Catholics lived in Virginia City during the "Big Bonanza," especially Irish Catholics, Rocha said.
"In terms of members, it was probably the largest church in congregation up there because there were so many Catholics up there," he said.
Sesquicentennial events include an anniversary Mass celebrated by Bishop Randolph Calvo of the Diocese of Reno and a dinner at the Delta Saloon on Saturday, and a Mass and barbecue on Sunday.