St. Mary: 125 years and holding steady
December 21, 2007
St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen celebrates its 125th birthday this year, making it the oldest continuously operating religious facility in town where the worshipers practice the same faith as they did at the outset. (The Aspen Community Church is older, but has hosted multiple denominations.)
With roughly 450 parishioner families on its rolls, said Father Michael O’Brien, the church is “holding pretty steady.”
Local resident John Keleher, who, with his family, has been attending Mass at St. Mary since 1973, said that for much of that time “the crowd has always been the same,” ticking off a long list of well-known local names.
Recently, though, he said, “It seems like there’s a lot of young people ” and maybe that’s the tone of the whole town.”
One of the church’s main public events each year is the annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner and Dance, at which hundreds of parishioners and non-parishioners partake of a traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage with all the fixins. Begun in 1887 as a fundraiser to build a hospital, the event was initially sponsored by the Knights of Wolf Tone, one of numerous clubs and fraternal societies formed by Irish immigrants.
The meal is prepared and served by parishioners and their friends, and last year it drew some 700 hungry celebrants to the church, which Father O’Brien said was “down a little bit” from the previous year. Eating, listening to live music from an Irish band and visiting with friends, the diners have traditionally been asked for a voluntary donation that goes to help the needy throughout the valley.
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The church also provides sanctuary for what Father O’Brien said is a fairly well-established homeless population of about 40-50 individuals in the upper valley. Working with The Right Door substance-abuse center and the local Homeless Coalition, O’Brien said he provides “emergency housing for one or two nights [at a time], year-round.”
But in the winter months, he opens up the church basement to any who need it, for as long as they need it. Aspen Valley Hospital provides free meals, and the rule is that the night’s residents must be in by 9 p.m., with lights out at 10.
“They have to be out by 7 in the morning, hopefully out working somewhere,” Father O’Brien continued.
Churches often become the focus of life in small towns, but given Aspen’s rather unique history, that was not initially the case for St. Mary.
An announcement in The Aspen Times announced the first Catholic service on July 3, 1881, at “the new Times building, corner of Hyman and Mill streets,” in what had been a bustling mining camp of tents and shacks only three years before.
During silver-mining’s heyday, the local priests conducted services among the parishioners in the neighboring settlements of Aspen, Ashcroft and Independence, and also were given responsibility for the souls of the Gunnison parish. They traveled to their congregations “by pack burro, wagon and afoot carrying your belongings on your back over foot trails and very primitive roads,” according to a commemorative pamphlet written by parishioners and printed for the church’s 125th birthday.
By 1883, the parish had its first church (the second built in town, after the Community Church), named St. Stephen’s, a small, wooden-frame building in the same block where the rectory (built in 1888) and the larger, brick church building (started in July of 1891, dedicated in March 1892) now stand.
Once the new St. Mary building was completed, the old St. Stephen’s building was used as a convent and a parochial school off and on for years. It was torn down in the 1940s.
During the long “Quiet Years” between the silver bust of 1893 and rise of the ski industry in the late 1940s, the church struggled to remain open and active in the community. A “pew tax” was established to shore up sagging church finances as the population dwindled, and so did the parishioners. The birthday booklet refers to a parish “of very small numbers” in 1911, and of a sudden boom in the town’s fortunes when the metals market rose in response to the onset of World War I in 1914.
Through the decades between the world wars, church historians report, the building was host to all manner of religious services and public functions, from the parish picnic to weddings, bazaars and dinners. A Catholic Youth Organization was started, which raised the money to purchase the statue, Our Lady of Fatima, that stands in front of the rectory.
When Aspen’s renaissance as a ski resort got into full swing in the late 1940s, St. Mary was part of the resurgent local economy and social structure, as it is today.
Starting in the 1980s and continuing well into the 1990s, church officials embarked upon a multimillion-dollar series of renovations and upgrades to its campus, including the installation of a massive Lyon-Healy organ built in Chicago in 1905.
St. Mary did not emerge completely unscathed from the recent sexual impropriety controversies that have hit the Catholic Church nationwide. Stories appeared in 2005 about the investigation of a former priest, Harold Robert White, who was accused of sexually molesting boys while serving at St. Mary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with allegations from other Colorado parishes where White worked.
But the charges, involving a priest who had been gone for more than two decades from Aspen, did not stir much local controversy. St. Mary did not seem to suffer any loss in local support or prestige, and continues as an important thread in the town’s overall fabric.
For the Christmas week, the church has three masses scheduled for Dec. 24, at St. Mary and at the Snowmass Chapel, and two for Dec. 25, again at St. Mary and at the Snowmass Chapel. Masses also are scheduled for New Year’s Eve, one at St. Mary, and two for New Year’s Day, one at each church.