Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 21, 2012
In the heart of Aspen stands an unmistakable ecclesiastical structure, well over a hundred years old, an edifice to Aspen’s glorious past. A basilica cast in rough sandstone from the Fryingpan valley, it is one of the very few remaining remnants of Aspen’s origins, dating back to the 1890s.
A feudal castle look-alike in the imaginations of children and adults alike, it stands majestic, a bastion without a moat, creating a sense of wonder to passers-by unfamiliar with Aspen’s history.
At its dedication ceremony in 1891, there were at least a thousand people in attendance, and since then, it’s always been about the people. Through the years of decline and eventual resurgence, the Aspen Community Church was a beacon for those souls needing the soothing and acknowledgment of their peers, implying, as its name so aptly illustrates, that it was a meeting place that transcended individual religions. Baptists, Lutherans, Protestants, Methodists, agnostics, nonbelievers and a few others all showed up for Sunday services or other social activities because it was the community gathering place, apart from the bars or the Catholic Church, a few blocks away.
How many meals were served to silver miners, suddenly out of work after the 1893 crash? The kitchen, still vibrant, has always been an important part of church activities, not only to members, but to the homeless, the curious and the well-heeled. Were its floors worn partially smooth by the incessant tread of shell-shocked survivors, paying their last respects to the untimely victims of the 1918 flu epidemic? Did the oak stairs creak any differently in 1949 when Dr. Albert Schweitzer ascended them to take his seat before the keyboards of the church organ?
How many fathers and mothers have held their babies before the altar, waiting for the baptismal water to fall, just as their parents and grandparents before them have done? It’s about continuation, community and longevity. This writer remembers sitting behind Judge and Dorothy Shaw each Sunday, marveling at the convoluted rolls, twists and coils of Mrs. Shaw’s braided and prodigious white tresses. Surely Judge Shaw spent a portion of every morning helping his wife get her hair in order.
If you show up there some Sunday, you will likely find one of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke’s daughters occupying a pew near the front. In the summer, the Aspen Music Festival performs in the sanctuary at least three days a week, as the acoustics there are some of the best in the country. Show up any night and find Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings in progress; piano lessons flourish in the kitchen and lounge area, bringing year-round music appreciation to many; philosophical discussions take place over an occasional potluck lunch and on every day of the week, some part of the community, religious or not, benefits from the existence of the Aspen Community Church.
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The years have taken their toll on the massive building, and it is time for a major remodeling of the infrastructure and roof. Such things are not inexpensive and the small congregation cannot afford the task. The church is conducting a fundraising campaign called “Generation to Generation: Honoring the Past, Preparing for the Future,” an effort to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million dollars.
Unlike the Utes, whose words and songs come from the naturalness of the tumbling mountain streams and shimmering aspen trees (an association they cannot shake no matter how many generations removed they are from their ancestral grounds), we non-Utes rely upon monuments and edifices and rock cairns to validate our historical record upon the land. One of the most enduring and recognizable structures from the very beginnings of Aspen is the Community Church building. How much poorer, no matter its modern wealth, would Aspen be without the staid countenance of the Aspen Community Church?
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