Leadville Church Gets New Life
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Its mere name defines the recent news. Annunciation: to make public, a formal declaration about a fact, or occurrence; the announcement of something.
And so it was proclaimed down on the corner of E. 7th and Poplar Streets as the historic Annunciation Church celebrated its re-opening on Sunday, Dec. 8. After more than a year of repairs and renovations, the pews to one of Colorado’s most historic churches were full, once again in song and praise.
Leadville Today (LT) has been reporting on the transformation from the beginning, updating readers on the progress being made at the two churches that make up Holy Family Parish, Leadville’s Catholic community. Last weekend, the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe (OLOG) procession ceremonially marked a milestone for the parish as the group traveled from St. Joseph’s Church at W. 2nd and Maple Streets, across historic Harrison Avenue, and onward to the corner of E. 7th and Poplar. Here, the OLOG dancers honored the Patron Saint of Mexico, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus in song and dance at the front doors to the church which have been closed for more than a year.
Once inside, its most sacred definition was revered: the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit to be called Jesus (Luke 1:26–38). On that cold, blustery second Sunday of Advent, under the leadership of Father Rafael Torres-Rico, joined by Deacon Tony Werckman and visiting priests Father Leo Smith and Father Michael Kerrigan, the parish was once again whole. The day continued with a Rosary, Veneration, and Mass, followed by a Fiesta. It was a day of celebration, signaling the future for the Catholics in America’s highest city.
“Four years ago, I arrived as the new pastor of Holy Family Parish,” said Father Rafael Torres-Rico in a letter to Leadville Today. “Since that very day, I embraced the task in bringing back the beauty of these two outstanding churches.”
It was back in September 2015, when Fr. Rafael was appointed as the pastor of Holy Family Parish. But as the next chapter for Leadville’s Catholic community began to unfold, the young, well-educated priest from Mexico, soon found himself knee-deep in drywall dust and mortar. The physical conditions of both churches soon took top priority, aside from the daily offering at the altar. For this man-of-the-cloth, much like his predecessors spanning the church’s 140-year history, urgent situations were presenting themselves regularly, if not daily.
And while other preservation projects in Leadville can often grab the headlines, in contrast, this hands-on, faith-filled, grass-roots work that has been done at these two historic churches is worth just as many likes and shares. While their steeples are hard to miss in the mountain skyline, the story of what has been going on inside, among the pews often goes unwritten. So it’s here that Part One of Leadville Today’s “Annunciation: Go Tell It on the Mountain,” story begins.
Pews News: Save Me a Seat in the Back
There’s an age-old adage that the back half of the church is always full, despite there being enough room in the first six pews for twice as many parishioners. And while one’s proximity to the altar may not signify one’s closeness to God, for early pioneer church-goers in Leadville, the choice was more likely grounded in common sense. It’s where the fireplaces were located.
In its early years, Annunciation Church was heated by a large stove. Some of the older church ladies, when entering the house of worship on a cold, winter’s day, would warm themselves by the stove, thus establishing the custom of a congregation that tends to sit toward the rear of the church; it was warmer.
That excuse may not carry much credence today, but it certainly could have held true for those early Leadville faithful who listened to the sermons delivered by a 48-year-old, French priest by the name of Joseph Projectus Machebeuf back in 1860.
Bringing The Golden Rule to the Silver Camps
Joseph Projectus Machebeuf is said to have celebrated the first Catholic Mass in California Gulch (east of town) in the blacksmith shop of Thomas Starr, an early placer miner. Father Machebeuf, known as the “Apostle of Colorado,” was beloved in Leadville during the 1860 – 70s, as he rode the Rocky Mountain circuit spreading the Gospel. While his dedicated congregation of miners may have been rich in spirit, few had anything to contribute to the church coffers in a town where the average miner could barely eek out a living, paying exorbitant prices for the simple necessities of life.
But eventually, the Catholic Church in Leadville would see an increase in those offerings as the discovery of silver on Fryer Hill in 1878 led to a great mining boom, and the growth of a wealthy community, at least for some. By 1879 under the direction of Father Henry Robinson the building of Annunciation Church had begun on the southwest corner of E. 7th and Poplar Streets. By 1881 the church was completed.
The Highest Spire in North America
In the book, “100 Years of Faith (100YF),” by Rev. Hewitt, and printed here with permission from Holy Family Parish (HFP), Annunciation’s beaconing spire is described as such:
The steeple was erected after the main portion of the building had been in use for some time. It is a masterpiece of intricate carpentry, a web-like interweaving of timbers built to last for centuries. The exterior was covered with shingles which lasted for decades, (before the present-day aluminum shingles were installed in the late 1950s).
Eventually, the steeple which is credited as having the highest church spire in North America, became the home to a great 3,636-pound bell, for ringing in the Faithful to services was installed in 1885, but not without some controversy in the neighborhood. A favorite story told by older parishioners concerns complaints from neighbors who objected to being awakened by the bell, which was called “St. Mary.” Apparently, the complainants circulated a petition to have the church bell ringing stopped, especially in the early morning hours, and presented the paper to the Leadville City Council with a request that some legal action be taken. Rev. Robinson had the list of complainants published for all to see, and all complaints ceased.
The “St. Mary” bell remains today, its hollowed sound piercing the thin-air, high above Colorado’s two highest peaks. From a historical perspective, it’s the same bell that rang out in celebration at the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown’s wedding – before she encountered The Titanic, and tolled in grief at the famous Baby Doe Tabor’s funeral; she was Irish Catholic.
The Booms And Busts of Mountaintop Faith
Over the years, Annunciation Church would see its share of lean times, staying in step with the economy and parishioners’ commitment to tithing. While the mortgage-burning ceremony was held back in 1900, just a couple of decades after its construction, it still takes monies to operate a house of worship. Among the daily and weekly church services are a seemingly endless list of priestly duties, from confirmations and confessions to weddings and funerals, as well as all the other chapters of life that take place between baptism and last rites.
During the dark, leaner years of The Great Depression, it was a Rev. Edward Horgan who shepherded the Leadville parish through the spiritual valley. In fact, thanks to Father Horgan, Leadville Catholics saw the return of midnight Mass on Christmas. According to the 100YF booklet, printed here with permission:
Before Fr. Horgan’s arrival, a midnight Mass had not been held on Christmas at the Annunciation Church for many years. This was due to an unpleasant incident that occurred at a pre-Christmas mass in the early years of the church. While a High Mass was in progress on the Eve of the Nativity, two drunken revelers burst into the church. They reeled down the aisle, shouting and singing. Some of the more aggressive members of the congregation pounced on the intruders. Some blood was spilled in the melee before the obstreperous pair was ejected from the church. For several years, the presiding bishop and his successors would not sanction a Midnight Mass at the Annunciation Church. With the passage of time, the instance was almost forgotten. Rev. Horgan was eventually successful in bringing back midnight Mass at Christmas.
But as the calendar turned to the 21st century, church attendance dropped, and so did the funds for day to day operations, as well as regular maintenance and upkeep of the churches. Buildings which were one the glory and focal point of many religious and social occasions had fallen into grave disrepair, with Annunciation Church’s structural needs reaching a critical point that could no longer be ignored.
In Part Two of Annunciation: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Leadville Today brings readers into the 21st century, including photos of the recent renovations done at both churches over the past four years. Stay tuned and feel free to send your feedback, photos and memories at firstname.lastname@example.org
For those interested in making a tax-deductible donation to the churches, you may do so by sending a check to Holy Family Parish, 609 Poplar Street, Leadville CO 80461. You may reach Father Rafael Torres-Rico by contacting the Parish’s Office Manager Kathy Micklich at 719-486-1382 or by email at email@example.com. You may also connect via the Holy Family Parish website, where an online giving option is available.