‘Colorado’s Historic Churches’ ready for summer reading

Local writer shares photos, stories of state’s houses of worship

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They’re built from wood, brick, adobe, stone and combinations thereof and vary in size from small chapel to ones that seat many hundred parishioners. Many still function every Sunday and at other times their community needs them-for weddings, memorial services and an occasional concert or theatrical production.

Littleton writer, historian and Colorado native Linda Wommack, author of several books of Colorado history, has collected photographs and compiled notes from many of the state’s historic churches and published an account of them: “Colorado’s Historic Churches.”

It will be a nice addition to the Colorado bookshelf — or perhaps readers have a small collection of books they carry in the car as our family did when exploring the many historic mountain towns. It will be nice to step into these buildings, knowing something of their stories.

Mining camps spread across the state, followed in many cases by a railroad that brought other citizens to fill miner’s needs. In many cases, after a town or mining camp was functioning, especially if there were women involved, some residents sensed that something was missing — a spiritual life. They started up small congregations, meeting in homes or public buildings at first, then led by a particular individual, a committee or a large congregation, found a vacant lot — or an individual would donate a lot in some cases, and/or lead the way in raising a building.

Many are still used by congregations, but not all.

Some had distinctive shapes and designs and many were constructed in what we call “Carpenter Gothic.” A familiar nearby example is St. Philip in the Field Church on Plum Creek in Douglas County, with its accompanying Bear Canon Cemetery, Wommack writes about builder Newton S. Grout, a New Englander inspired by churches of his youth. The congregation was formed in 1870 and the church and cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also listed is Castle Rock’s St. Francis of Assisi Church, which eventually became the Old Stone Church Restaurant when its congregation moved on to a larger facility.

Chapters focus on areas

The book is organized with a South Platte River Valley Chapter; Chapter Two is The Mountain Valleys; Chapter Three is The Arkansas River Valley and Chapter Four is The Rio Grande Valley.

Bishop Nicholas C. Matz helped build Catholic churches across the prairie as towns developed. Wommack writes of the severe weather on the eastern plains in Sterling, where hail demolished the timber Catholic church three times. Parishioners asked Matz to send a resident priest and a brick and stone church was dedicated in 1911, with 500 Catholics in attendance.

The arrival of the railroad in Colorado brought a number of Irish workers and the need for Matz to build a new Denver Catholic parish, built on five lots at the corner of Larimer and Machebeuf streets, located between trolley and rail tracks in the area now called Five Points

In Denver, some large churches grew, such as Trinity Methodist Episcopal, designed by Denver’s first licensed architect, Robert S. Roeschlaub, which still stands out on Broadway. Zion Baptist, the first black congregation, at Ogden and 24th, has celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Wommack writes of Baby Doe Tabor’s connection with Denver’s Sacred Heart Church — and her husband Horace’s deathbed conversion as he lay ill at the Windsor Hotel. That church, supported for many years by Father Casey, became Denver’s first designated historic property by the city council in 1975. The Colorado Historical Society has helped in recent years toward further restoration of the fragile landmark.

In 1882, Temple Emanuel, the first Jewish synagogue, was built, designed by architect Frank E. Edbrooke, “including Moorish and Romanesque details,” the author says. Other major Denver churches followed.

Convent began in 1912

In Littleton, the Carmelite Convent was established in 1912, beginning with the wedding of Jacques B. Benedict and June Brown, who bought an old red brick farm house and began renovations, transforming it into a “Beaux Art-Arts Villa of sorts.” (He also designed Littleton’s Town Hall, Carnegie Library and First Presbyterian Church.) Benedict hired artisans to paint frescos on several walls and hired landscape architect S.R. DeBoer to design the grounds.

The couple lived in the Benedict House for 35 years, and after the Benedict’s death, it was given to the Order of Carmelite Nuns, who live and worship there now. Improvements include a chapel, connected by a matching red brick arch.

In the plains, near Julesberg, is the Virginia Dale church, named after the wife of the “notorious Jack Slade.” And in Boulder County, the First Baptist Church is the “finest example of Late Gothic Revival architecture in the state.

Central City, Georgetown, Silver Plume and Breckenridge all developed churches and in the Breckenridge area, the reader learns more about the legendary Methodist preacher Father John Lewis Dyer, who traveled through the many mining camps, sometimes on snowshoes, to preach to the residents. He caused confusion in Breckenridge by ringing the firemen’s bell to call folks to church … with permission of city officials.

Elsewhere in the western part of the state, one reads about Viejo San Acacio Chapel in Costilla County — one of Colorado’s oldest churches, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Conejos, the first sanctioned Catholic Church in what would become the State of Colorado, where Father Machebeuf said his first Mass “before the dawn, by the light of pinon wood fires,” he wrote…

This large paperback book is crammed with historic photographs, from Wommack’s collection and that of the Denver Public Library and others she has tracked down.

Perhaps it will lead a reader on happy summer excursions in the mountain towns to learn more of their histories.

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