By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Annunciation. By simple definition, the word implies the announcement of something. So with the recent news of a planned memorial to honor Irish Catholics buried at the Evergreen Cemetery, a review of the Church which bears the name Annunciation seemed to be in order. Add to the building’s spiritual significance, its deeply rooted heritage, and you have the story of a church that has endured the town’s booms and busts with souls clearly in focus. It is also the story of recent historic preservation efforts that have marked major milestones in the past year, manufactured by a congregation’s sweat equity and checks thrown into collection baskets. Two Catholic churches now make up Holy Family Parish in Leadville: Annunciation Church (609 Poplar Street); and the “Church of St. Joseph,” known informally as St. Joe’s, located at 426 W. 2nd & Maple Streets in Leadville. This is the story of the former.
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, who went on to become known as the “Apostle of Colorado,” was beloved in Leadville during the 1860 – 70s, when 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 placer miner could barely eke 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 complete.
Now it’s important to note that Leadville’s two Catholic churches operated somewhat independently for many years, demonstrating that familiar east/west dividing line of historic Harrison Avenue, which put the westside faithful at St. Joe’s and the eastside bread-breakers at Annunciation. That was until The Catholic Community of Leadville was officially formed in 1988 when Bishop Richard C. Hanifen united the two parishes under one pastor. The two parishes in the community were merged to form Holy Family Parish (HFP) in a decree from Bishop Michael Sheridan on Oct. 22, 2007. The community still includes both churches, with services rotating back and forth depending on season and renovations efforts.
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).
The steeple, which is credited as the highest church spire in North America, eventually became the home to a 3,636-pound bell which was installed in 1885, and immediately caused 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 complainers 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 names 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.
Over the years, the 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 which 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 successful in bringing back midnight Mass at Christmas.
Over the decades, priests came and went, some stayed longer than others, and yes, even in God’s kingdom, some were better liked than others. 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 buildings.
Of course, both Annunciation and St. Joe’s are listed on the National Historical Registry and eligible for all kinds of assistance with historic preservation foundations and organizations, something the parish is looking into.
Annunciation Church is still an active place of worship. It’s also an incredible place of history. Remember, this is the church where the unsinkable Molly Brown got married in 1866 to over-night million JJ Brown, before her fateful trip on the Titanic.
Annunciation Church is also where the famous second wife of Horace Tabor, Baby Doe Tabor, had her funeral Mass in the winter of 1935; she was Catholic.
The interior artwork and architectural details of Annunciation Church are some of the finest in Colorado’s high country, but so often remain unseen by longtime residents and visitors. The sanctuary features a hand-carved marble altar, stained glass windows and canvas panels with oil paintings from Italy!
The pews in Annunciation tell their own story, like the old “pew-rent” system of voluntary contributions being made, which assured parishioners their choice of seat. Or the tales from shadowy ghosts of old metal plates which bore the names of former donors, still evident today along with the ornate, hand-carved pews by Patrick F. Martin, of the Leadville Martins, HFP members for generations (100 years of Faith ref).
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.
Like most of Leadville’s history, the church’s connection to mining was never far removed. In fact, it’s reported in the “100 YF” booklet that a business transaction with the Climax Mine helped fund a portion of the religious structure. In 1919, John Webber sold off a parcel of land he owned to the newly formed Climax Molybdenum Company in exchange for company stock worth about 25 cents a share at that time. But when Webber was ready to cash in, the deal paid off well, affording a profit which paid for the two side-altars, still in place today, as well as a statue of St. Anthony for the church.
Thanks for reading this first part of the history of Annunciation Church. Stay tuned for Part Two which brings the story into the 20th century. The report will include an update on the recent milestones made on both historic Catholic Churches concerning historic preservation efforts. It’s a story sure to lift your spirits about living in Leadville Today!
How awesome is this place, this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. – Genesis 28:17.
For 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 the Leadville Catholic Youth Facebook Page where the weekly church bulletin is generally published for additional details on services and Mass schedules.