Leadville’s Historic Churches Take Center Stage
Mind. Body. Spirit. These three words are often touted as the three-legged stool to health and happiness. To that end, Leadville Today (LT) continues its Lenten Series, dedicated specifically to that third leg: Spirit.
Preservation and restoration projects are underway at two of Leadville’s historic churches. While their steeples in the mountain skyline are hard to miss, the story of what is going on among the pews often goes unwritten.
Annunciation Church: Leadville’s Testament of Faith
By Kathleen Bedell, © Leadville Today
Annunciation. By simply definition, the word implies the announcement of something. So, it seems appropriate that the announcement regarding the restoration efforts underway at two of Leadville’s historic churches, also coincides with the Feast Day of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, this Saturday. This Catholic Feast Day celebrates the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus Christ.
But today’s announcement from the Catholic Community of Leadville, shines a light on its “Building Campaign.” This program is not only slated to raise the Faithful’s awareness concerning local houses of worship, but also to heighten the attention of regional preservationalists about the restoration efforts already underway at these two crown jewels of architecture: Annunciation Church (609 Poplar Street); and the “Church of St. Joseph,” known informally as St. Joe’s, located at 426 W. 2nd & Maple Streets in Leadville.
Save Me a Seat in the Back: News from the Pews
There’s an age-old adage that states that the back half of the church is always full, despite there being enough room in the first six pews for twice as many parishioners. Does one’s proximity to the altar signify one’s relationship to God? Or are people simply creatures of habit, genuflecting before the same pew as their parents and grandparents did before them?
Of course, there may be many perfectly good reasons to sit near the back: a fidgety baby, a legitimate need to slip out early, wheelchair access, or a bad cough; but for early pioneer church-goers in Leadville, the choice was more likely based in common sense. It’s where the fire places were.
In its early years, Annunciation Church was heated by a large stove. Some of the older church ladies, when entering the house of worship on a cold, winter’s day, would warm themselves by the stove, thus establishing the custom of a congregation that tends to sit toward the rear of the church; it was warmer.
While that excuse may not carry much credence today, it certainly could have held true for sermons delivered by a 48-year-old, French priest by the name of Joseph Projectus Machebeuf back in 1860.
Bringing The Golden Rule to the Silver Camps
Joseph Projectus Machebeuf is said to have celebrated the first Catholic Mass in California Gulch (east of town) in the blacksmith shop of Thomas Starr, an early placer miner. Father Machebeuf, who went on to become known as the “Apostle of Colorado,” was beloved in Leadville during the 1860 – 70s, when he rode the Rocky Mountain circuit, spreading the Gospel. While his dedicated congregation of miners may have been rich in spirit, few had anything to contribute to the church coffers in a town where the average placer miner could barely eek out a living, paying exorbitant prices for the simple necessities of life.
But eventually the Catholic Church in Leadville would see an increase in those offerings as the discovery of silver on Fryer Hill in 1878 led to a great mining boom, and the growth of a wealthy community, at least for some. By 1879 under the direction of Father Henry Robinson the building of Annunciation Church had begun on the southwest corner of E. 7th and Poplar Streets. By 1881 the church was complete.
Now, it’s important to note here that these two Catholic churches operated somewhat independently for many years, with many families experiencing that familar east/west dividing line of historic Harrison Avenue, which put the west-y church-goers at St. Joe’s and the east-y bread-breakers at Annunicaiton. That was until The Catholic Community of Leadville was officially formed in 1988 when Bishop Richard C. Hanifen united the two parishes under one pastor. The two parishes in the community were merged to form Holy Family Parish (HFP) in a decree from Bishop Michael Sheridan on Oct. 22, 2007. The community still includes both churches, although present-day services are held only at Annunciation due to deteriorating conditions at St. Joe’s.
The Highest Spire in North America
In the book, “100 Years of Faith (100YF),” by Rev. Hewitt, and printed here with permission from Holy Family Parish (HFP), Annunciation’s beaconing spire is described as such:
The steeple was erected after the main portion of the building had been in use for some time. It is a masterpiece of intricate carpentry, a web like interweaving of timbers built to last for centuries. The exterior was covered with shingles which lasted for decades, (before the present-day aluminum shingles were installed in the late 1950s).
Eventually, the steeple which is credited as having the highest church spire in North America, became the home to a great 3,636 pound bell, for ringing in the Faithful to services was installed in 1885, but not without some controversy in the neighborhood. A favorite story told by older parishioners concerns complaints from neighbors who objected to being awakened by the bell, which was called “St. Mary.” Apparently, the complainants circulated a petition to have the church bell ringing stopped, especially in the early morning hours, and presented the paper to the Leadville City Council with a request that some legal action be taken. Rev. Robinson had the list of complainants published for all to see, and all complaints ceased.
The “St. Mary” bell remains today, its hollowed sound piercing the thin-air, high above Colorado’s two highest peaks. But what once was the glory and focal point of many religious and social occasions has fallen into grave disrepair, with Annunciation Church’s structural needs reaching a critical point that can no longer be ignored.
The Booms And Busts of Mountaintop Faith
Over the years, the church would see its share of lean times, staying in step with the economy and parishioners’ commitment to tithing. While the mortgage-burning ceremony was held back in 1900, just a couple of decades after its construction, it still takes monies to operate a house of worship. Among the daily and weekly church services are a seemingly endless list of priestly duties, from confirmations and confessions, to weddings and funerals, as well as all the other chapters of life that take place between baptism and last rites.
During the dark, leaner years of The Great Depression, it was a Rev. Edward Horgan who shepherded the Leadville parish through the spiritual valley. In fact, thanks to Father Horgan, Leadville Catholics saw the return of midnight Mass on Christmas. According to the 100YF booklet, printed here with permission:
Before Fr. Horgan’s arrival, a midnight Mass had not been held on Christmas at the Annunciation Church for many years. This was due to an unpleasant incident which occurred at a pre-Christmas mass in the early years of the church. While a High Mass was in progress on the Eve of the Nativity, two drunken revelers burst into the church. They reeled down the aisle, shouting and singing. Some of the more aggressive members of the congregation pounced on the intruders. Some blood was spilled in the melee before the obstreperous pair was ejected from the church. For several years, the presiding bishop and his successors would not sanction a Midnight Mass at the Annunciation Church. With the passage of time, the instance was almost forgotten. Rev. Horgan was successful in bringing back midnight Mass at Christmas.
Over the decades, priests came and went, some stayed longer than others, and yes, even in God’s kingdom, some were better liked than others. But as the calendar turned to the 21st century, church attendance dropped, and so did the funds for day to day operations, as well as regular maintenance and upkeep of the buildings.
Of course, both Annunciation and St. Joe’s are listed on the National Historical Registry and eligible for all kinds of assistance with historic preservation foundations and organizations, something the parish is looking into.
Annunciation Church is still an active place of worship (albeit a bit light in the pews these days). It’s also an incredible place of history. If you’ve never stepped foot in Annunciation Church, Lent is a great time to do so, whether for Sunday services or during Friday night’s Stations of the Cross. Schedule ENGLISH. Schedule SPANISH.
Remember, this is the church where the unsinkable Molly Brown got married in 1866 to over-night million JJ Brown, before her fateful trip on the Titanic.
Annunciation Church is also where the famous second wife of Horace Tabor, Baby Doe Tabor, had her funeral Mass in the winter of 1935; she was Catholic, you know.
The interior artwork and architectural details of Annunciation Church are some of the finest in Colorado’s high country, but so often remain unseen by longtime residents and visitors. The sanctuary features a hand-carved marble altar, stained glass windows and canvas panels with oil paintings from Italy!
The pews in Annunciation tell their own story, like the old “pew-rent” system of voluntary contributions being made, which assured parishioners their choice of seat. Or the tales from shadowy ghosts of old metal plates which bore the names of former donors, still evident today along with the ornate, hand carved pews by Patrick F. Martin, of the Leadville Martins, HFP members for generations (100 years of Faith ref).
And as with most of Leadville’s history, the church’s connection to mining was never far removed. In fact, it’s reported in the “100 YF” booklet that a business transaction with the Climax Mine helped fund a portion of the religious structure. In 1919, John Webber sold off a parcel of land he owned to the newly formed Climax Molybdenum Company in exchange for company stock worth about 25 cents a share at that time. But when Webber was ready to cash in, the deal paid off well, affording a profit which paid for the two side-altars, still in place today, as well as a statue of St. Anthony for the church.
Vaya Con Dios: Go Tell It On The Mountain
Most likely, the most significant shift the Catholic community in Leadville came in the late 20th/early 21st century with a growing segment of Latino parishioners. This paralleled the economic demographic change that Lake County was experiencing in the late 70s/early 80s as Climax Mine shut down operations initiating an exodus of Biblical proportions, particularly when it came to Leadville’s generational Catholics. The families that got married in, had their kids baptized and confirmed in, and said their final farewell to loved ones in these churches had picked up and moved out; they had to follow the jobs.
So the Hispanic community began to fill in the gaps of a disenfranchised congregation. Known the world over as some of the most devout Catholics, they not only helped replenish the church coffers through tithing, but they also brought their own rich, religious traditions, some now listed among locals’ favorites annual events. One such occasion is the Our Lady of Guadalupe Procession, held annually on her Feast Day of December 12. This yearly march delights both the Faithful and the curious, as a sea of bright red, beaded-and-bangled procession of dancers makes the 3-mile journey into Annunciation Church to honor the Mother of Jesus in a beautiful display of dancing and drumming.
On Feb. 18, 2013, Holy Family Parish in Leadville was raised canonically to the status of being named a Center for Hispanic Ministry, a personal parish to minister to the Hispanic faithful for the Western Deanery.
In September 2015, Father Rafael Torres-Rico was appointed as priest to serve Holy Family Parish. But as the next chapter and verse began to unfold with the young, well-educated priest from Mexico, who clearly possessed the spiritual and cultural gifts necessary to bring together a bi-lingual, bi-cultural parish, the physical conditions of both churches soon took top priority, aside from the daily offering at the altar. For Father Rafael, much like some of his predecessors over the church’s 136 year history, urgent situations were presenting themselves regularly, if not daily.
Certainly, most parishioners are not likely to forget Fr. Rafael’s sermon describing his first nights in Leadville spent sleeping in the pews at St. Joe’s because the rectory was simply unsuitable for living until some upgrades were made. Which they were, once they were brought to the attention of senior parishioners. Still, it’s tough to hear.
So quickly yoked to his list of priestly duties, Father Rafael had to contend with construction, snow removal, historic preservation, snow removal and the restoration of two of the oldest churches in Colorado.
It was time for an “Amen!” So last year, the HFP Finance and Pastoral Council reported to the Leadville Catholic Community that an assessment had been performed in February 2016 by Faye Engineering Corp due to concerns at the parish office, located adjacent to Annunciation Church. That building also houses the classrooms for religious instruction conducted by HFP’s Deacon Tony Werckman. The engineer’s main concerns were the south wall of the parish hall, as well as the west walls of both the parish social hall and the Sacristy of Annunciation Church (the area behind the altar, unseen by most church-goers).
A copy of the report was personally delivered that same month to the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which oversees the Leadville parish. In response, according to a letter distributed to parishioners, the Architect for the Diocese sent an email the next month indicating that the office-classroom building needed to be vacated immediately and repairs completed by the summer of 2016.
To date, some of those band-aid fixes have been implemented, but the immediate needs are still critical. While the dream is to eventually build a new parish office/classroom building/social hall in the location of the present office at 609 Poplar Street, structural issues with both historic churches continued to compound during this harsh, snow-laden winter. This s the most immediate need. Here’s how you can help.
Holy Family Parish does maintain a “Building Campaign” fund. The program also has opportunities to roll-up-your-sleeves, for you and your group to assist with a particular project. Cash donations are also being solicited. At this point, the process is simple, although there are discussions about online crowd source funding options and a possible website, for now, donation and inquiries can be done in old-school fashion.
How awesome is this place, this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. – Genesis 28:17.
For those interested in making a contribution to the Holy Family Parish “Building Campaign” you may do so by sending a check to 609 Poplar Street, Leadville CO 80461. For more details about the overall plan and projects you and your group can assist with, please contact Father Rafael Torres-Rico directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Parish’s Office Manager is Kathy Micklich, she may be reached by phone at 719-486-1382 or by email at email@example.com. You may also connect with the local parish on the Leadville Catholic Youth Facebook Page where the weekly church bulletin is generally published for additional details on services and Mass schedules.
As the Leadville Today Lenten Series continues through Easter Sunday, April 18, the story of The Church of St. Joseph will be told, including the current status and restoration efforts underway for this historic church located at 426 W. 2nd & Maple Streets. Stay Tuned!