Willoughby: St. Mary puts on a new face, from basement to steeple | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: St. Mary puts on a new face, from basement to steeple

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
St. Mary’s Church began a major renovation in 1955.
Aspen Historical Society photo

This year St. Mary wraps up a thorough renovation. The renewal caps more than 125 years of upgrades and maintenance, an ever-mounting challenge. The $7 million price tag on the recent project far exceeds the cost of the original building, $524,000 in today’s dollars.

The congregation undertook a major renovation about 60 years ago, with much of the work accomplished by volunteers. My father joined them, but volunteer is not quite the appropriate description for his contribution.

My mother conscripted my father. Like several of those who worked on the project, Father was not a Catholic. But he had married one. He and other non-churchgoers joined the group of renovators to undertake one of the most important tasks — to rebuild the heating system.

Steam boilers and radiators heated all of Aspen’s large buildings. We lived in the Cowenhoven Building, and I would often accompany my father in the evening to shovel coal into the building’s hopper to heat the huge boiler. Originally, someone had to shovel coal directly into the boiler every few hours and clean out the clinkers at least once a day. But by the time I was a child, Father had installed an automatic feed system. We filled the hopper only one time each day, and a screw drive would churn coal into the boiler at a steady pace.

As an altar boy, I entered the church early in the morning, just after Father Bosch had turned the thermostat up. The sound of steam hissed through the radiators just like at home. Men struggled to rebuild the basement heating system. They wrestled bulky items out of and into the pit and plumbed new steam lines to the top floor. Father did not take me along on that project, so I did not know about the basement. But, having spent hours in the church, I knew almost every inch of the rest of the building.

One St. Patrick’s Day, a few friends and I hung out with our parents at church while they peeled potatoes for the community feast. Restless kids with little else to do, we dashed from room to room looking for places to hide from one another. The ground floor housed large rooms and an adjoining kitchen for events. The southwest quarter offered smaller spaces with a few coat closets.

I dashed into the area with smaller rooms and noticed an entryway that led to a closet-like space. Fearsome darkness warned me away, but I ran headlong inside.

I fell for what felt like forever.

At that age, I understood a child’s version of church and heaven. The concept of hell had entered my life as a profanity. I knew I had done something bad and — unaware of the basement — I knew I was headed you-know-where.

Figuratively and literally in the dark, I felt Father Bosch hold me and saw him stare into my face. A heavy smoker, he overpowered me with the stench of fire and brimstone.

The closet held a steep stairway to the basement, covered by a trap door. But someone had forgotten to close it. Although I broke no bones, the bruising experience left me convinced that the portal opened up to more than a boiler basement.

I never returned to that space, and I hope I never do. Yet I did get to climb up to the steeple one time. Believe me, the farther you get from the basement, the closer you get to heaven.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.