Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

In Search of St. Barbara’s Catholic Church

st. barbara's church

A couple of years ago, I ran across an old photograph taken by my father of a church across a wide chasm in the Badlands. As part of an ongoing project to ​revisit some of the spaces in “Black Hills Ghost Towns“, I went looking for this church.

black hills ghost town f page

Watson Parker shot this image in 1957

At first, I thought it was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, on Cuny Table. I visited that church twice, and couldn’t match the angle in the original photograph. It is a beautiful church, sitting atop a wide table overlooking the Badlands, but it isn’t a match for the picture Dad took in 1957.

st. joseph's church

St. Joseph’s Mission, Pine Ridge Reservation, SD

I kept searching for the church. Another Catholic mission on the Pine Ridge reservation looked promising. The only problem was that it was difficult to access. St. Barbara’s sits atop a table just south of the White River, miles from any main highway. From the north, maps showed it accessible from Bouquet Table Road, and indeed, Google Maps showed the most direct route crossing Cain Creek and the White River. Only problem was, there are no bridges. The first time I attempted this route, I went with Mom, and it was springtime. A wet year. We got five miles south of the highway, and were turned back because the area around Cain Creek was flooded, and there wasn’t anyway to get across it in our little Subaru.

bouquet table road

Bouquet Table Road, Badlands NP, SD

This view is looking back north towards the Badlands, after Mom and I turned around and headed home. The clouds were breaking, and the patterns on the fields were beautiful. Even though we didn’t get down to the church, we had a wonderful drive through the Badlands.

white river ford

White River Ford near St. Barbara’s Church, SD

My brother Dave and I took the Toyota down that direction just this past week, and took another road that branches off of SD 44. After some wrong turns, and a few very vague tracks, we managed to get down to the White River, where we tested the water for fordability. In August, the river is low, and the bottom firm. Dave walked across, and I brought the truck over with no real issues.

the model church on the hill

Cemetery plots and miniature memorial church

Just across the river, we found St. Barbara’s cemetery. A miniature memorial church sits atop a small knoll overlooking the plot, where several families have lovingly tended to the graves of the departed. The church is a model of the real church, but it’s only about 4 feet high. From a distance, it looks like the real thing.

Memorial church and cemetery

st. barbara's church

St. Barbara’s Church, Imlay SD

baby's grave

St. Barbara’s Church Cemetery


foundations of church

St. Barbara’s Church foundation

conata road

Near St. Barbara’s Church, Badlands, SD

foundation of church

St. Barbara’s Church — all that remains

Up on the hill, we found the remains of the original church. Nothing was left but the foundation and a few scraps of tin from the roof. The concrete steps led up to where the door would have been. We walked the entire site, looking for the broad chasm shown in Dad’s picture, but again, could not match the site to the photograph. There are other churches in the Badlands, but this was my prime candidate, until now. There is no deep gully anywhere within walking distance of the original church as in Dad’s photo. There is a road that looked interesting, heading over toward Conata and another river crossing, but we did not explore that route.


The bluffs along the River Road

We took the southerly route home, down River Rd. towards Kyle. This valley is remarkably green for August, and a beautiful part of the Badlands I had never seen. It’s definitely a 4WD road, with several rough spots, and a couple of creek crossings, like this one, with a VERY dubious bridge. (An alternate route crosses the creek without a bridge, but has an extremely high exit angle that the truck might not have been able to negotiate.) Looking back, I might not have crossed this bridge, as the supports are eroding away from the bank on the entrance side. Note the wrecked car under the bridge in the stream.

two steel beams bridge the creek

Wash crossing, RIver Road, Kyle SD


The search for St. Barbara’s is over, but the search for the mysterious church on the edge of the Badlands desolation continues… If you have an idea of where the church in the original picture might have been, please contact me, or comment below.

August 8, 2016

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