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God’s Wonder and Colorado History in Leadville

God’s Wonder and Colorado History in Leadville October 15, 2021

Part of the attraction of traveling is the wonders you discover along the way. Among those are architecturally dazzling churches with fascinating history.

As the “Wandering Pew,” my husband and I were delighted to attend Mass in Leadville, Colorado, at Annunciation Church, an absolute gem and part of the rich history of this town.

Leadville sits at 10,200 feet next to the two tallest mountains in Colorado and the headwaters of the Arkansas River. It boasts of the highest golf course in the country and 250 inches of snow every winter.

Founded to serve the gold miners who came in the 1860s and 1870s, at first a circuit rider priest served the Catholics. With the discovery of large amounts of silver deposits in 1878, prosperity allowed the building of Annunciation Church in 1879-81.

Annunciation Church

Here, people had an excuse for sitting in the back – that’s where the heating stove was! (Long ago replaced by natural gas heat.) This church also had the rented pew practice where people paid a fee to reserve their favorite pew.

Hand-carved pew in Annunciation Church

Photo courtesy of Leadvilletoday.com

The pews are polished wooden planks with gorgeous hand-carved pinecone designs at the end of each pew. Our knees barely touched the edge of the kneelers since the pews were built for the smaller people of yesteryear.

The pews were also numbered, but we couldn’t figure out any logical order to the numbering. Turns out, the pews were once removed for renovation work, but brought back helter-skelter!

The interior artwork and architectural details are awesome. The altar, carved out of marble, looks like a wedding cake. Hand-painted panels from Italy depict Bible scenes on the upper part of the walls. There are, of course, beautiful stained-glass windows.

The steeple, constructed of interwoven timbers, was built to last through the ages. Its spire is the highest in North America, and in 1885, a bell was added that still rings across the town.

Connections to mining history abound in the church. An unexpected bonus to his profit led one mine owner to donate the two side altars and a statue of St. Anthony. The legendary Unsinkable Molly Brown was married in Annunciation Church in 1886.

Hand-carved marble altar in Annunciation Church. Italian panels on the sides.

Photo courtesy of Leadvilletoday.com

When the mines shut down, the pioneer Catholic families left, but Hispanics arrived to be served by and support the church. The parish is now bilingual and in 2013 was designated a Center for Hispanic Ministry by the Western Deanery.

St. Joseph’s Church

There’s another historic Catholic church in Leadville representing another culture. In 1899, 1500 Slovenian immigrants arrived and built their own church, St. Joseph’s. It burned down in March of 1923 but was re-built by that December!

In 1927-28, the parish priest covered the walls with hand-painted frescoes. His Bible scenes and Stations of the Cross have inscriptions in English and Slovenian.

The passage of time was tough on St. Joe’s. By 2015, the rectory was uninhabitable, which caused the new pastor to awaken the congregation to their situation. Emergency repairs on the rectory were just the beginning of what needed to be done according to a 2016 engineering assessment.

Renovations

Consequently, St Joe’s was closed when we were there in 2017. However, renovations were underway for both churches largely with the help of volunteers and financing from local fundraisers and businesses.

Annunciation Church with spire in winter.

Photo courtesy of Leadvilletoday.com

While both churches are in the National Register of Historic Places, the requirements for government preservation grants were felt to be too restrictive. So, little by little, the work is getting done by other means.

One bulletin we saw announced that Knights of Columbus members from another town were coming on a weekend to help with building projects. It is good to know that visitors and neighbors appreciate the value of these treasures and are helping to maintain their beauty and serviceability.

In 1988, the two parishes were joined under one pastor and became the Catholic Community of Leadville. In 2007, the name became Holy Name Parish.

Inherited crown jewels

Annunciation, St. Joseph’s and other historic churches provide us with gifts from the past. They are not only a history lesson, but also a reminder of the continuity of the Catholic Church.

Through the generations, through boom and bust, through all those snowstorms, these two churches have remained at the center, not only of their town, but also at the center of Catholic life.

For the miners in Leadville, these two churches were surely their crown jewels, more precious than the silver or gold in the earth.


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