After 60 years of being allowed to stay overnight in an RV trailer at Yellowstone National Park to host public church services, there’s no more room for the traveling priests of Cody’s St. Anthony Catholic Church.
The church can still host services as it has for decades, but Yellowstone National Park says it can’t stay overnight anymore.
“For 60 years we have been parking there. A priest goes there, stays there in Old Faithful,” said the Rev. Charles Heston. “We explain everything, and all (the park) says is, ‘This is the way now, this is the way now.’”
Overall, the church has been providing services at Yellowstone since 1922.
In the past, St. Anthony clergy would stay in Yellowstone on Saturday nights between a Saturday afternoon service and three services offered in the park on Sundays. Heston said they would stay in an RV parked right outside Old Faithful.
In 2020, this access was cut off by Yellowstone because of COVID-19 concerns. A similar reason was given in the summers since. Now the park says the ban on overnight stays is permanent because there isn’t enough space to allow church staff to stay in their RV.
“They keep saying, ‘This is the way now, this is the way now,’” Heston said. “What can we do?”
Heston said the decision is particularly frustrating because the parking space the church used at Old Faithful sat largely empty last summer.
Employee Housing Crunch
Morgan Warthin, a Yellowstone spokesperson, said employee housing has become a particular concern for the park, a longstanding problem amplified by housing and rental prices in gateway communities that border the park.
“We cannot, and are not able to, give an RV site or employee housing to that group or to any group, really, that requests through a special use permit,” Warthin said. “We just do not have the capacity in housing or RV sites to accommodate those needs.”
Park visitation has increased 45% since 2000, creating a higher demand on Yellowstone that requires more staffing to manage park operations.
Warthin said the park is studying potential areas for new housing, which would only be in existing developed areas. The park also recently converted three eight-plex utility/storage areas into one-bedroom apartments and is pursuing housing lease options in the gateway communities of Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Montana.
Warthin said employee RV spots are considered part of employee housing options and a lack of parking availability in the Old Faithful area prevents the park from allowing the church to keep an RV in a lot.
The ultimate decision-maker on the RV ruling was the special use permitting office within Yellowstone’s Visitor Resource and Protection Division, which grants and denies special use permits for activities like this within the park.
Because of the decision, Heston said he and his clergy must now make an extra 200-mile round trip from Cody to offer services to park-goers. The church is still carrying on its legacy this summer, but not without some added strain.
“We come back to Cody (on Saturday) and then again (come back) on Sunday morning, and then again driving out,” Heston said.
The three priests at St. Anthony take turns going to Yellowstone each weekend to hold services.
Yellowstone National Park offers 12 locations where people or groups may exercise their First Amendment rights through demonstrations. The park is continuing to approve the special use permit for the church and other groups to offer services.
St. Anthony, which has been serving Catholics in the Big Horn Basin since 1910, offers summertime Holy Mass at Yellowstone’s Fishing Bridge on Saturdays, the employee recreation halls at Old Faithful and Lake Lodge on Sunday mornings, and the outdoor amphitheater at Bridge Bay on Sunday afternoons.
Heston said the Bridge Bay services are particularly convenient for those who stay in campers there, typically spending weeks at a time in the park.
They also occasionally offer Saturday evening services at the Canyon Amphitheatre, within a mile of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. He said the canyon services sometimes draw as many as 50 people.
“It’s (because of) our country’s religious freedom that we say Mass,” Heston said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.