Leadville’s Historic Westside Church
Hidden gems, much like the gold and silver extracted from these grounds, can be found any given corner in a town like Leadville. So the next time you pass by the intersection of Maple and W. 2nd Streets, be aware that you are near to one of the most prolific artistic murals ever painted at 10,200 feet.
Originally posted on April 12, 2017. (c) Leadville Today. All Rights Reserved.
If you have never stepped foot inside St. Joseph’s Church, you would be astonished at what is housed inside. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, the church walls are adorned – almost entirely – with fresco paintings, depicting scenes from the Bible, in addition to Stations of the Cross, with inscriptions in both Slovenian and English. It took Father Jurij Trunk two years to complete the work from 1927-28, which he did by hand from the scaffolding which was moved about the church as the mural expanded. Despite his self described “limited artistic ability,” Fr. Trunk’s masterpiece did gain recognition, most notably from a reporter from Denver’s Rocky Mountain News who gave this favorable review in the late 1950s:
“The casual visitor to Leadville expects to see mine dumps and skeletons of hoists against the sky, rather than optics of art. In part of the city, stands Saint Joseph’s Church with some of the most amazing murals you’ve ever seen. In brilliant colors, primitive and suffuse with religious zeal, they depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments and episodes from the lives of saints.” RMN 11/23/59 “Catholic Church Has Amazing Murals.”
St. Joseph’s Church, much like its eastside sister Annunciation, is steeped in Leadville history, with many of its well-known characters sitting right in the front pew! But like the boom and bust of mining, even the faithful’s dedication ebbs and flows, as is recorded in “100 Years of Catholic Faith: St. Joseph’s Church,” (100YCF) published by The Catholic Community of Leadville © 2000, and printed here, in part, with permission from Holy Family Parish of Leadville. Here are some of the highlights of this interesting and noteworthy historic building and its faithful parishioners.
As the Catholic Church saw the turn of the 20th century, the establishment of ethnic parishes was viewed as one of the variables that might help retain the faithful during a downturn in their numbers. And with 1,500 immigrants from Central Europe’s Slovenia living in Leadville in 1900, it was only natural that they would establish their own religious community, including their rich, homeland traditions, some still evident in Leadville today.
The seeds of faith for St. Joseph’s Church were planted on October 20, 1899, when Bishop Matz authorized Father John Perse to establish a Slovenian parish in Leadville. Less than two months later, the cornerstone was laid at W. 2nd and Maple Streets, kicked off by an elaborate procession from the Annunciation Church to St. Joseph’s Church.
A mere four months from its establishment by the Diocese, in February 1900 St. Joseph’s Church was completed. It was relatively large for its day, standing at 75 feet by 43 feet, with a 92-foot bell tower, all providing enough room for the more than 300 faithful gathered under its roof. The construction cost was $15,000 and the first Mass was offered in the church on February 26, 1900.
The parish grew under the pastoral guidance of several priests during its first two decades however its faith would be tested when the original church burned to the ground on March 19, 1923. As recorded in 100YCF:
“On a cold winter evening on March 19, 1923, St. Joseph Church burned to the ground, by one of the worst fires in this community in some time . . . the fire was fanned by high winds and freezing weather, and in a matter of minutes, the church was on fire from an end to end. When the fire truck arrived, the church was a blazing inferno. The clanging of the bell on the fire truck woke most of the people in the neighborhood, and in a matter of minutes, there were hundreds of spectators, which caused great confusion at times. The fire department strung three hoses in an attempt to bring the blaze under control. Realizing that the church was doomed, Father Miklavcic and volunteers began to bring out the church records and other valuable items from the parish home. The church steeple was the last to burn, and when the heavy bell came crashing through the broken timbers, the roar of the terrific crash was said to be heard from nearly two blocks away.”
In the end, although never officially recorded, the cause of the fire was thought to be an electrical short. Whatever the cause, the parishioners and pastor did not give up. In a remarkable move of faith, the new building was erected by the end of that same year, with the new bell being blessed and pulled into the belfry on December 23, 1923!
Father Miklavcic left Leadville in 1924 and was succeeded by Father Jurij Trunk. It was during this time that the inside of the church walls was painted. And while the artistic display may look finished even to this day, before he left in 1946, Father Trunk restored only part of the frescoes. He couldn’t get to all of them because he fell off the scaffolding and could not return to complete the restoration. (note: Perhaps a present-day arts coalition would be interested in visiting his work and assessing its condition and needs).
Ironically, one of Father Trunk’s last official communications would be concerning “problems with the heating system, which could cause future difficulties.” Perhaps a prophetic warning, which brings the story to present-day restoration efforts and repairs to, you guessed it – the heating system!
But like the spirit that arose from the ashes in 1923, once again The Catholic Community of Leadville, draws from its deep well. Over the past several months, faith-filled volunteers, from carpenters and cleaners, to masonry and landscape talents, have all appeared on the corner of Maple and W. 2nd Streets, to help repair and re-build St. Joseph’s Church. Improvements included:
- Recarpeting of the church.
- Pews removed, repaired, restored and put back in place.
- The altar area was repainted and new stonework frames the back wall.
- Three new medallions have been inlaid on the newly-tiled center aisle.
- Staircase to choir loft re-built.
- Confessional in the back of church redesigned.
Those interested in making a contribution to the Holy Family Parish “Building Campaign” you may do so by sending a check to 609 Poplar Street, Leadville CO 80461. For more details about the overall plan and projects you and your group can assist with, please contact Father Rafael Torres-Rico directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Parish’s Office Manager is Kathy Micklich, she may be reached by phone at 719-486-1382 or by email at email@example.com. You may also connect with the local parish on their website: Holy Family Leadville.
Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today 2017