Aspen’s Catholic church finds its spirit during renovation

St. Mary Church is three months and $300,000 away from having its parish put back together after an extensive renovation of the 125-year-old building.

After nearly a year of holding masses off site, parishioners returned to St. Mary on March 11 to attend services, albeit in a temporary location in one of the classrooms on the church’s ground floor. Two of the three masses were standing room only, Rev. John Hilton said.

“We’ve been at the Methodist church for the last nine months,” he said, adding that the Aspen Community Church has been great in accommodating St. Mary’s congregation. “They like it over there but this is home.”

The upstairs sanctuary is still under construction and is expected to be completed mid-June. Standing in front of where the altar would be and under an A-frame of scaffolding on the church’s second floor, Hilton beamed with gratitude and hope for the future.

“This is exciting to me,” he said of the sanctuary space. “The whole goal is when a person walks in for the first time, they would never know it was renovated.”

The sanctuary’s floor will return to wood, the arch above the altar is being reshaped, the pews are being restored in upstate New York and the stained-glass windows are being meticulously redone in Carbondale.

As one of the oldest buildings in the downtown core, this is the first time St. Mary has been stripped down to her core. There have been remodels over the years but not a full-fledged gutting, Hilton said of the $7 million project that was paid for through a fundraising campaign.

“We are taking the building apart,” he said. “It’s like the layers of an onion.”

Crews went into the attic last summer with Hazmat suits on. They were met with layers of ungodly things: coal dust, dead rats, mice, bat droppings.

There’s no insulation in the exterior walls — it’s brick-to-brick. The ceiling on the third floor was sagging about eight inches.

“It could have lasted another 100 years or it could have collapsed tomorrow,” Hilton said. “When you really look closely, it needed to be done.”

Local firm Charles Cunniffe Architects is heading up the project, with specialists coming in where needed. On the third level of the church (one level above the sanctuary), the coffered ceiling is being painted by New York City-based Evergreen Architectural Arts.

“Here we are being very careful to keep everything historic,” Hilton said while standing above the sanctuary.

The city’s historic preservation commission has given the project its blessing. Amy Simon, Aspen’s historic preservation officer, has been working closely with the church.

Hilton said he has appreciated her guidance.

“She’s been a real friend to us,” he said.

The renovation is giving the church a slight increase in square footage because it is opening areas that were walled off before. The entrance is more open, with a coffee bar and a hallway that leads people to a reception area.

“We wanted to make it warm and welcoming when you come in the door,” Hilton said.

Multiple layers of paint on the first floor’s original windows from 1892 have been stripped, and will blend in with the historic elements of the building, along with other materials being used.

The classrooms have been remodeled and the old apartments facing the lawn between the church and the rectory have been turned into offices.

The church had originally planned to expand by several thousand square feet with a social hall that would’ve extended onto the lawn and added space in the basement. But the cost — both in price and community goodwill — was too great to push it forward. The church does have approval for a parish expansion if the congregation chooses to do it in the future, Hilton said.

“We didn’t have community buy-in,” he said, adding that many community members appreciate the lawn. “You have to think about what’s good for the parish, or what’s good for the community.”