The Catholic Church in Colorado

The teachings of Catholicism were perhaps brought to the Pike’s Peak country many decades before the first permanent white settlements were located. The Spaniards taught the principles of the faith to the Pueblos, but these tribes, for some reasons, failed to adopt completely the customs and their religious rites, even to this day, contain only a few features suggestive of the Catholics.

The denomination proper did not have birth in this territory until about 1858, when the first white settlers began to come in numbers. Catholicism was the fourth denomination in the settlement at Denver, although the members erected the second church building in the village. The Town Company had extended to the churches the privilege of obtaining ground upon which to erect houses of worship, and the Catholics seem to have been about the only ones who took advantage of this offer, receiving land which afterwards proved to be extremely valuable. The first actual record of the Catholic Church in Denver is contained in the following excerpts from the Town Company’s books:

“Mr. Clancy moved that a committee of three be appointed to see Mr. Guiraud in relation to a Catholic Church and that said committee be further empowered to reserve grounds for them, if they should determine to build a church in Denver City.”

The Guiraud referred to in the above statement was a Denver merchant, of French nativity, and undoubtedly one of the leaders among the members of his church and one who represented the church officially in the community.

Late in the spring of i860 Rt. Rev. J. B. Miege, bishop of Leavenworth, Kansas, came to Denver with the purpose of establishing his church, the matter of the first lot donation having been settled the previous March. His first services were conducted in Guiraud’s home, located on the southeast corner of Fifteenth and Market streets. This was in June. Immediately afterward he journeyed out of Denver and conducted mass in several of the mining camps in the surrounding country, carrying his religion into many of these places for the first time. He found, upon his return to Denver, that the Town Company had donated to him another lot, known as Block 139, and bounded by Fifteenth, Stout, Sixteenth and California streets. A church association was then organized, with Judge G. W. Purkins as president and arrangements were made for the construction of a church on Stout Street near Fifteenth. About this time Rt. Rev. J. B. Lamy, bishop of Santa Fe, received official notice that the Pike’s Peak region had been united to his diocese.

The foundation of the church building was laid on the designated spot and the work of construction begun. However, this was in a period of financial strain over the whole region and the subscription lists which had been started in order 10 pay the expenses failed to accumulate as fast as expected. The result was that very shortly the building work had to cease.

At this juncture the Bishop of Santa Fe despatched the Very Rev. J. P. Machebeuf and Rev. J. B. Raverdy. They arrived in Denver October 29, i860, to take charge of the Catholic missions in the Pike’s Peak country. Reverend Machebeuf was the greatest Catholic Colorado ever had; he is responsible for the establishment of the denomination in its strength in practically every locality in the state, and his efforts and kindly work have made a glorious chapter in the religious history of the Columbine State. He passed away in Denver August 2, 1889, and was followed in death by Father Raverdy on November 18th of the same year. Raverdy had been vicar general to Machebeuf.

Immediately upon the arrival of the two priests the work of building the church and securing funds was revived and the church pushed toward completion. The first religious services were held in the building on Christmas night in the year 1860. In 1862 an organ, the first in Denver, was brought from St. Louis; also an 800-pound bell, the first in the village. The bell was suspended in a wooden tower in front of the church, but during the storm on the night of December 25, 1864, the tower fell and the bell was broken into pieces. Thereupon a new bell, weighing 2,000 pounds, was sent from St. Louis. Additions were subsequently made upon each side of this first church building and for many years it was one of the familiar structures of Denver.

Having acquired a building site at the corner of Colfax Avenue and Logan Street, the Catholics sold the Stout Street property in the spring of 1900, and on May 13th of that year the last services were held in the old building, which had housed the congregation for forty years. Plans were immediately made for the raising of funds for a new cathedral, but the work progressed slowly. The foundation was laid, but the lack of money prevented any further work. “Then,” writes Rev. William Howlett, the diocesan historian, “on July 26, 1908, a new rector was appointed in the person of Rev. Hugh L. McMenamin, a young man of talent, energy and courage, who proved the man of the hour, the right man in the right place. Lender him new plans for financing the undertaking were devised, subscriptions were actively and successfully pushed, and the work of building the superstructure begun. It is not necessary to enter into the details of the different contracts, nor to recount the personal and material difficulties inevitable in such a stupendous task, let it be sufficient to say that Father McMenamin met every difficulty with a courage that conquers.” This magnificent church property, which is now completed, stands at the corner of Colfax and Logan and is valued closely to $1,000,000; it is a work of art and declared by architectural critics to be one of the best cathedral types in the country. In addition to the cathedral, there are now twenty-one Catholic churches in the City of Denver.

In 1864 the large frame dwelling of William Clanton, on the south side of California, between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, was purchased and placed in charge of three sisters of the Order of Loretto, who came from Kentucky in response to a call from Father Machebeuf to institute an academy school in Denver. This school was given the name of St. Mary’s. The Sisters of Loretto later constructed their academy several miles southeast of the city and now occupy a commodious new building within the city.

When the California Gulch fever broke out and brought hordes of men from the east in 1860, Father Machebeuf appeared upon the field and celebrated the first mass. He labored among the camps, paying yearly visits to each and remaining for several weeks at a time. In 1875 Father Robinson of Denver was sent to Fairplay, just across the range, and one of the duties assigned him was a monthly visit to California Gulch and Oro (Leadville), which then consisted of only a few log cabins. In February, 1879, Father Robinson was despatched to Leadville, where he found about twenty-five members, but so rapidly did the congregation increase that in the course of a few weeks a church was erected on the comer of East Third and Spruce streets, the first place of public worship in the city. The church, quickly becoming too small, was abandoned in 1879 and the new Church of the Annunciation occupied. Father Robinson, who gave Catholicism its first life in Leadville, was also responsible for the St. Vincent’s Hospital in that city.

In Boulder, Colorado, the first church building of the Catholic Church was that 0f the Sacred Heart, constructed in the year 1876 by Rev. A. J. Abel. In Georgetown the Catholics formed the basis of their church when the town was first laid but; a building was early constructed and named after “Our Lady of Lourdes,” with Rev. Thomas Foley as the first rector. Longmont had her first Catholic church building in 1882, the same year as the first structure was put up in Colorado Springs. At Central City Father Machebeuf established a church in 1872; an academy was built on Gunnell Hill in 1874. The first priest at Golden was Rev. Thomas McGrath, who began his work there in 1871. The church was established at Glenwood Springs in 1886 and at Manitou in 1889. The Catholics were established at a very early date in the vicinity of Trinidad. Its people have progressed with the years and now number far in excess of other denominations in the southern part of the state. Sterling first had a Catholic church, built of wood, in 1887-8. Rev. Father Howlett was among the more prominent of the early rectors here. At Grand Junction Rev. Father Servant, assistant priest at Gunnison, held the first services March 24, 1883, and on June 7th was appointed pastor by Father Machebeuf, his work also embracing Delta, Montrose, Ouray and the San Miguel country. The new church at Grand Junction was opened for services in April of the year 1884. The period of greatest growth of Catholicism in Colorado is from 1885 until 1895; in this decade, at some time or other, church societies were established at practically every community of importance in the state. Most of these had small beginnings, meetings ordinarily being held in the private residences at first, but in nearly every case church structures of size and beauty were soon built. In a census of the different denominations of the state at the present time, the members of the Catholic Church are found to be in greater numbers than of any other one denomination.

History of Colorado

Source: History of Colorado, Wilbur Fisk Stone, Editor, Volume I, Chicago, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918

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