ST. MARY (1882)
Aspen's "Sky Pilot" since 1882 has been St. Mary's. Weathering economic peaks and valleys as steep as that of the surrounding mountains, St. Mary's has served Pitkin County continuously from the silver boom to the ski boom.
Prospectors poked into the upper Roaring Fork River valley as early as the late 1870s. Where the Roaring Fork of the Colorado River is joined by Castle, Hunter, and Maroon creeks, silver seekers founded Aspen in 1880. The new camp attracted hundreds, then thousands of prospectors swarming in each year over Independence Pass.
Aspen, a part of Gunnison County until the creation of Pitkin County in 1881, was first a mission tended by priests from Gunnison. Luke Harney said the first Mass on Sunday, July 3, 1881, in the Aspen Times building at Hyman Avenue and Mill Street. Father Harney's assistant in Gunnison, M. McCarthy, OSB, also traveled over Pearl Pass to say Sunday Masses until Bishop Machebeuf appointed Edward Downey the first resident pastor in June 1883.
Father Downey, who had been born, raised, and educated in New York, endeared himself to Aspenites by riding with troops policing the Utes. He and his flock used bazaars, dinners, and dances to raise money to build St. Stephen's mission on Main Street between Galena and Hunter streets. This plain, frame church was dedicated in June 1883. Next door, at the corner of Main and Galena, the parish constructed, in 1888, the $6,000, two-story brick rectory still in use.
Miners' candlesticks were used to light the church and to pin paper flowers to the walls. Soon, the congregation outgrew this small, simple church, as Aspen became the third largest city in Colorado. On the eve of the 1893 silver crash, Aspen's population reached 5,108 and its silver production surpassed even that of Leadville.
During these flush times, Father Downey used St. Patrick's Day dinner balls and other extravaganzas to help raise $22,000 to build a new, debt-free church, St. Mary's. This sturdy two-story brick church, brightened by numerous Gothic windows, was dedicated on March 13, 1892. The seventy-five-by-forty-five-foot structure on a stone foundation contained an elevated chair box and a pipe organ. That fall, Benedictine nuns from Chicago opened a parish elementary school on the first floor, while the church room above doubled as an assembly hall.
As St. Mary's had become one of the largest parishes in the diocese, Bishop Machebeuf, in 1890, sent John Baptist Pitival to Aspen to assist Father Downey. Father Pitival was a French-born priest who had been ordained by and worked under Archbishop Lamy in Santa Fe. The hard work of building a new church, school, and rectory, as well as Aspen's rugged 7,908-foot-high climate, wore down Father Downey's health. He was reassigned to relatively balmy Brighton in 1891. Father Pitival, an able administrator who would become the archbishop of Santa Fe, became St. Mary's second pastor and made the church a mainstay of the community, which fell on hard times after the silver crash. The Benedictines left the school in 1900, but Bishop Matz persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to reopen it in 1904. The nuns were given the old St. Stephen's mission as a convent home. The Aspen Courier of September 12, 1905, voiced the town's joy at regaining St. Mary School:
Aspen's silver mines continued to close as the metal's price fell from over $1.32 an ounce to fifty-nine cents. The town's population slid to 1,834 in 1910 and tumbled to under 700 during the 1930s. St. Mary's School, so joyously reopened in 1904, closed permanently in 1910. Seven short-term pastors struggled to keep the church open. Aspenites, whose town hall shared the same block as St. Mary's and whose county courthouse was just across Main Street, feared for the day that the church would shut its doors.
The once shiny silver city became a semi-ghost town. Townsfolk turned to raising cattle, sheep, and hay, or tried living on the spectacular scenery. Old prospectors dozed in front of the Hotel Jerome, one of the few places to remain open.
"Pop," a visitor asked one of these old timers during the 1930s, "what makes Aspen so slow?"
The old codger squinted at the questioner and mumbled, "The people's mineralized, that's what. They got silver in their hair and lead in their pants."
Over at St. Mary's, Reverend Felix Dilly wrote to Bishop Matz suggesting St. Mary's be closed because "the support of the pastor is now becoming very meager in every respect." Instead, Bishop Matz replaced Dilly with Patrick J. McSweeney in 1914. Father McSweeney stayed with the parish until his death in 1941. Returning the loyalty of his small, poor flock, he stuck it out through a mining bust that closed many other parishes. "I regret that I am unable to meet the Diocesan dues this year," he wrote to Bishop Tihen on December 29, 1930. "The mining situation is deplorable. The people are poor and cannot find work. They are certainly striving to keep a resident priest here."
Father McSweeney was also assigned, in 1932, the missions at Basalt and Marble, which had been tended from St. Stephen Church in Glenwood Springs. By the time Father McSweeney died, Aspen's renaissance had begun. In 1938, André Roch, a Swiss skier, laid out Roch Run on Aspen Mountain. In 1942, the U.S. Army opened Camp Hale to train ski troops, some of whom would start the Aspen Skiing Corporation in 1946. A few years later, Walter Paepcke, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, founded the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
By the 1950s, Aspen had emerged as a skiing, cultural, and resort haven for an international jet set. By the 1970s, Pitkin was, per capita, the wealthiest county in Colorado and the ninth richest in the United States. As the population climbed to over 3,000, St. Mary's, with a seating capacity of 200, began to overflow, as it had in the 1880s. Clergymen as well as laity vacationed in Aspen and the basement of St. Mary's became a dormitory for visitors, including one young priest from Baltimore, Frank Stafford, who liked to ski.
St. Vincent's, the mission church in Basalt, received its own pastor in 1970 and, in 1973, opened a mission at Snowmass Village. Phenomenal population growth prompted Archbishop Casey to establish St. Mary of the Crown in Carbondale in 1980. Pitkin County Catholics and tourists were also served by a summer vacation school, operated at St. Mary's by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
The good sisters liked to retell the legend of the quaking aspen tree. Supposedly, Christ was crucified on an aspen, and after that the trees were banished from the Holy Land to cold, mountainous regions. The aspen's trunk and branches would never again grow straight enough to form a cross, and the heart-shaped leaves would never stop trembling. Thomas A. Bradtke, the pastor of St. Mary's since 1981, provides unique "therapy" for parishioners and tourists--raft tours down the Roaring Fork River with "Father Tom's Rafting Academy."
Father Tom, who says he fell in love with the area while on sick leave from Chicago in 1970, guided St. Mary's through its centennial celebration in 1982. Following a Pontifical High Mass by Archbishop Casey, students and faculty from the Aspen Music Festival provided a series of free concerts of ecclesiastical and secular classics. In November, after winter brought "white silver" to Aspen's ski slopes, St. Mary's staged a banquet for the "old timers," the persistent parishioners who had never lost faith.
At the banquet, St. Mary's honored the likes of Elizabeth Callahan, who was born in Aspen in 1896 and now lives across the street from St. Mary's. She recollected how the priests used to read students' report cards in front of all the pupils. "The whole east end was full of Slovenians," she added, "while other Catholics--Irish, Italians, French, and Germans--lived all over." And she recollected the scariest times of all, the blizzards "when you couldn't see across the street to the strength that is St. Mary's."