Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel

ST. PAUL (1881)

"That bearded priest up in Idaho Springs, Father Henry R. McCabe, was a wild one," Father John V. Anderson recalled in 1986. "McCabe was a health seeker from Michigan who received special permission from the bishop to wear a full beard. He claimed he needed it to protect his delicate health. But when he came roaring into Denver he looked healthy enough, packing a pistol on one hip and a pint on the other."

Although Father McCabe may have scared the daylights out of his colleagues in Denver, he was beloved in rough-and-tumble Idaho Springs, where he stabilized a parish that had gone through ten priests and three churches in seventeen years.

Idaho Springs sprang up in a craggy mountain canyon in 1859, after George A. Jackson discovered gold near the junction of Chicago and Clear creeks. Despite nippy weather at 7,540 feet, the town's famous hot springs delighted miners and tourists, who helped sustain Idaho Springs during its long--and ongoing--cycle of mineral booms and busts.

After Bishop Machebeuf established St. Mary's in nearby Central City in 1861, its pastors tended Idaho Springs as a mission. By 1877, Bishop Ma-chebeuf had purchased a small cottage northeast of "the castle," the stone mansion of Mayor Thomas B. Bryant at 1828 Illinois Street. This cottage was fitted up as a chapel and a residence for circuit-riding clergymen.

By 1881, Idaho Springs had become a town of 733, leading Bishop Machebeuf to establish St. Paul parish and appoint J.J. LePage as the first resident pastor. Father LePage constructed a small church, which was destroyed by fire in 1883. Afterwards, St. Paul's rented quarters over the offices of the local newspaper, the Colorado Mining Gazette.

Father LePage was followed in 1884 by P. Sheridan, who immediately began work on a new church. Father Sheridan, another of the many priests come to Colorado in poor health, struggled mightily to complete the little frame church at the corner of Virginia Canyon Road and Virginia Street. While saying the first Mass on Christmas Eve, 1884, in the still unfinished church, he contracted pneumonia and died shortly afterwards.

Michael Culkin, pastor from 1885 to 1886, completed the little frame church and also a small chapel, St. Michael's, five miles to the west in Lawson. After Father Culkin left, five short-term pastors struggled to keep both tiny churches open and pay off their debts.

Percy A. Phillips, chancellor of the diocese, had repeatedly to enlist new priests for the struggling St. Paul parish. In a typical letter, written to a Father Brady in 1895, Phillips declared that "Idaho Springs is a lovely spot even in winter and I think the climate there is milder than Denver. . . . There is no necessity to worry about sick calls." Despite such propaganda, St. Paul's barely managed to remain open, thanks largely to the fund-raisers of the parish ladies. Annually the women of the Altar and Rosary Society (formerly the Ladies Aid Society) and the Servants of Mary staged a Catholic Fair in the now gone Opera House, entertaining the whole town with a bazaar, dinner, and dance.

Father McCabe came to the parish in 1898, and the town population reached its all-time peak in 1900--2,502. The population declined until the 1940s, when Idaho Springs bounced back to a relatively stable population of around 2,000. The nearby town of Lawson, however, dwindled, and in 1912, when only two Catholics lived there, St. Michael Chapel was closed.

Father McCabe guided St. Paul parish for forty-two years, retiring in 1940 and dying January 21, 1944. He was followed by fathers Forrest Allen (1941-1944), Francis P. Potempa (1944-1972), Edward H. Wintergalen, SJ (1972-1977), John J. Grabrian (1977-1984), John J. Murphy (1984-1987), and Francis Deml. During the 1940s, Father Potempa gained permission to build a larger church. Architect John K. Monroe designed a modern church and rectory on land donated by the D.J. Donnelly family, once the site of the Beebee House, the grandest hotel in Clear Creek County during the 1880s.

The quaint frame house that for sixty years was St. Paul's, with its front gable cross, plain frosted windows, and wooden altar and communion rail, still sits on James Dunn's placer mining claim at 338 Virginia Canyon Road. It is now a private residence, and the weathered white rooftop Celtic cross has been moved to the new buff brick church. Archbishop Vehr blessed the $75,000 church and rectory on March 1, 1955. The thirty-five parish families were joined by many non-Catholics who gathered that day for ceremonies. Among the celebrants were former pastor Allen, future pastor Wintergalen, and the widow of Cripple Creek mining magnate Spencer Penrose, who donated the organ. For the 1981 centennial, St. Paul's recaptured the past in an eighteen-page parish history compiled by Mike Morris. Father Frank Deml, pastor since 1987, continues the circuit-riding traditions of his predecessors, ministering to St. Mary's in Central City and Our Lady of Lourdes in Georgetown, the two parishes that initally tended the Idaho Springs mission that became St. Paul's.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver