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‘Recycled priest’ finds love of history in new parish

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Christopher Smith

Anton Sommer left the priesthood to marry, but after his wife died, he longed to lead a Catholic congregation once again.

Anton Sommer, the priest at Virginia City’s St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic church, didn’t choose to minister to a mining town in Northern Nevada; it was chosen for him.

“I’m a recycled priest,” he says, with a chuckle.

Beg your pardon? Sommer explains: While a priest in San Bernardino, California, he “accidentally fell in love” and got married. After his wife died some 20 years later, he asked the church to be reinstated. It took three years, but he finally got approval from the Vatican, and an assignment to St. Mary’s, last July.

On cloudy a Wednesday afternoon, Sommer sported a golfing cap over his curly white hair, and jeans and a windbreaker. A stranger wouldn’t have taken him for a man of the cloth. Nor would one have guessed he wasn’t a Virginia City native. Giving Desert Companion a private tour of the 147-year-old church, his passion for local history was as obvious as his pride in its church.

“Trip Advisor rates 35 attractions in Virginia City,” he says. “The church is No. 1”

Other travel trivia he dropped during the tour: St. Mary’s is the most-photographed church in Nevada; in 2014, U.S. Catholic magazine named it one of the 20 most beautiful churches in the country; official marketing materials for the 100th anniversary of Nevada’s statehood in 1964 prominently featured photos of the church; in 1875, there were 20,000 people in Virginia City — three times as many as in Carson City and Reno combined, meaning St. Mary’s held the largest Catholic congregation in the state.

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“Virginia City is the heart of Nevada history,” Sommer says, “and St. Mary’s is the heart of Virginia City.”

Vital organ or not, the church is worth seeing. Originally built in 1868 (the St. Mary’s parish dates to 1858, but other buildings were occupied before the current one), the church was rebuilt in 1875 following the great fire that destroyed much of the town. Determined to show their appreciation for America’s freedom of religion, the majority Irish congregation spared no expense in converting the Romanesque structure to the Gothic style, according to Sommer. Paintings depicting the stations of the cross were commissioned by artists in Florence, Italy; a chandelier was imported from Prague, Czech Republic; stained-glass windows came from Belgium; redwood for columns, beams and pews, from California. These were made by the finest local craftsmen.

St. Mary's could afford such luxuries in those days. As the Comstock Lode lined miners’ pockets, donation baskets overflowed.

“Six to 10 billion dollars’ worth of silver was mined here, in today’s dollars,” Sommer says. “This was a wealthy community.”