Huerfano County, Colorado
Conejos County, Colorado
Contributed by Karen Mitchell.
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Machebeuf: the Apostle of Colorado (1860-1889) If Father Machebeuf ever complained about his American assignment, his letters and his biographer do not reveal it. Yet this harsh new frontier must have left him homesick for France, which he visited whenever the rare opportunity arose. He longed to see his cherished sister, who became a nun and took the religious name he chose for her, Sister Marie Philomene. He also missed his younger brother Marius and his father, a master baker. They lived in Riom, in the southeast central French province of Auvergne, where Machebeuf had been born August 11, 1812. Auvergne was a land not unlike Colorado with its hills and deep river gorges, hot springs, and the Auvergne Mountains. But Colorado farmers would never produce the fine wines and cheeses that made Auvergne famous. Memories of such delicacies left Machebeuf even more hungry and thirsty for his homeland.
Encouraged by a pious mother who died when he was thirteen, young Joseph had attended the Christian Brothers School in Riom and then enrolled in the seminary at Mont Ferrand, which was conducted by the Sulpician fathers. He was ordained December 21, 1836. Auvergne Province was blessed with many more religious vocations than positions and sent its priests all over the world as missionaries. When John M. Odin, who later became bishop of Galveston and archbishop of New Orleans, came recruiting priests for the missions of America, young Machebeuf volunteered.
Father Machebeuf sailed from Le Havre on July 9, 1839. On board, he relished the salt air and the spirited company of a childhood friend and fellow seminarian, Jean Baptiste Lamy. Forty-four days after leaving France, they arrived in New York. The two young missionaries were delighted to be welcomed by other French priests, including the bishop of New York City. Machebeuf's first assignment was to the small town of Tiffin in northern Ohio. After a year as assistant pastor there, Machebeuf became the founding pastor of Holy Angels parish in Sandusky, where he served until 1849.
Father Machebeuf absorbed himself in learning English, American ways, and parish administration. He discovered that his new countrymen were fighting and winning a war far away in the Southwest. After Mexico's defeat, the United States acquired vast new territory that would become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado.
While the U.S. government tried to establish civil control over the Southwest, the American Church hierarchy grappled with the problem of Americanizing what had been Mexican parishes. In 1850, Father Lamy was named vicar apostolic in charge of New Mexico and Arizona, headquartered in Santa Fe. Father Machebeuf had just grown comfortable and even fond of "my dear Sandusky" when Father Lamy "grasped my hand and summoned me to keep my part of the agreement which we made never to separate." At the new vicar apostolic's insistence, Father Machebeuf became his vicar general in New Mexico. The two Frenchmen steamed down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, then procured an army escort across the plains of Texas, noted for hostile Comanches and desperados.
From El Paso, Lamy and Machebeuf followed the Rio Grande River route northward to Santa Fe. Machebeuf reported that "General Stephen W. Kearney, whose wife is a Catholic, gave us the privilege of drawing rations each week from the government supplies . . . and of paying for them at government prices." General Kearney also loaned the clergymen an army tent, but Machebeuf reported that "the nights were so calm and beautiful that we almost always slept out in open air." After a 400 mile trip across "a formidable desert" where "many human bones tell their tale of Indian slaughter," Machebeuf wrote that they received a cool reception from the Hispanics of Santa Fe. Over half the Mexican-American clergy eventually left New Mexico rather than serve under the new French-American hierarchy.
Upon their entry into Santa Fe on August 8, 1851, Lamy and Machebeuf were welcomed by the local Indians. Machebeuf reported that 8,000 to 9,000 Native Americans, wearing "gaudy and grotesque" costumes, built triumphal arches, "spread their shawls and cloaks on the ground for us to walk on," and welcomed them with "the docility of children." This riotous welcome, Machebeuf added, left Santa Fe's four Protestant ministers "filled with rage and envy."
The Mexican vicar of Santa Fe, Monsignor Juan Felipe Ortiz, had reservations about recognizing Lamy. Only after Lamy made a difficult 1,500 mile journey to see the bishop of Durango, José Antonio Laureano López de Zurbiria y Escalante, did Vicar Ortiz surrender the New Mexican church property. Padres José Gallegos of Albuquerque, Antonio Martínez of Taos, and some other Mexican priests continued to challenge some of the reforms imposed by the new vicar apostolic. Lamy often sent his assistant, the loyal Machebeuf, out to the provinces to deal with these difficult cases, which ultimately were appealed to Rome. In a May 31, 1852, letter to his sister, Machebeuf reported that the Santa Fe vicariate, which included New Mexico, Arizona, and part of Colorado, was a vast "vineyard so overrun with thorns and thistles." Machebeuf courageously and persistently tried to discipline the rebellious Mexican priests. "Bishop Lamy is sure to send me where there is a bad case to be settled," Machebeuf once wrote to his sister. "I am always the one to whip the cats."
In 1853, Lamy's vicariate was made a diocese, and he a bishop. Machebeuf was appointed pastor first at Albuquerque (1853-1858) and then Santa Fe (1858-1860), while also tending missions throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern Colorado. Rumors flew that Machebeuf would be appointed vicar apostolic of Arizona with headquarters at San Xavier del Bac mission in Tucson. The rumors did not end until Machebeuf's 1860 appointment as vicar apostolic of Colorado and Utah.
Mission in Conejos
On his missionary travels throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, Machebeuf logged over 100,000 miles. He traveled in a wagon outfitted with a square canvas top so he could sleep inside. This heavy carriage had side curtains, a half-curtain in front to be let down in case of storms, and a tailgate that could be lowered and used as an altar. Inside what he called his ambulance, Machebeuf had fixed up compartments for his Mass vestments and vessels as well as hay for the mules, and food, a frying pan, and a coffee pot for himself. He also kept close at hand his rosary, his breviary, and his copy of Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. This rolling church and rectory was pulled by two Mexican mules, which Machebeuf found more durable than American horses. Whenever possible, Machebeuf preferred to sleep outside in his buffalo robe under the Southwestern stars. This short, wiry Frenchman became tough and tan after enduring sunstroke and blizzards, cactus and lice. Willa Cather—in her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, created a vivid portrait of the man who toiled in that rough vineyard:
Crimson from standing over an open fire, his rugged face was even homelier than usual—though one of the first things a stranger decided upon meeting Father Joseph was that the Lord had made few uglier men. He was short, skinny, bow-legged from a life on horseback, and his countenance had little to recommend it but kindliness and vivacity. He looked old, though he was then about forty. His skin was hardened and seamed by exposure to weather in a bitter climate . . . his eyes were near-sighted, and of such a pale watery blue as to be unimpressive. . . . [He was] homely, real, persistent, with the driving power of a dozen men in his poorly built body.
On one of his many cross-country treks, a fellow priest complained of the howling wolves at night. Those are only coyotes, Machebeuf reassured him and added, "You dreaded the monotony of the plains; you ought to be glad to have a free band to serenade you!" When spirits or health flagged seriously, Machebeuf might retreat to his wagon and bring out a bottle of French wine. On Machebeuf's 1860 journey from Santa Fe to Denver to establish St. Mary parish, he and Father Jean Baptiste Raverdy stopped at the pioneer Catholic church in Colorado, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Conejos. To get to Conejos, they had followed a tributary stream of the Rio Grande that flowed out of the San Juan Mountains into the broad valley of San Luis. Some said the tributary was called Conejos because it ran as swiftly as a rabbit; others said it was because of all the jackrabbits.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, had guided Mexican settlers up the Conejos River, according to local folklore. A mule had refused to move on after the immigrants stopped at a cottonwood-shaded site on the Conejos nineteen miles west of the Rio Grande. The party had cajoled and cursed, pushed and pulled, but the beast would not budge. Then someone pointed out that this was the mule carrying the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe; surely this was a sign from heaven. On that spot, the village of Guadalupe was founded in 1854.
The Conejos River flooded the town that spring, and Indians ambushed shepherds as they headed out to the fields one morning. Jos Mar a Jaques and other leaders decided to move the settlement to higher ground and rename it Conejos. There, these Mexican pioneers constructed a plaza rimmed with adobe buildings to keep in the sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, and mules and to keep out the Apaches and Utes.
Together, settlers dug the Conejos ditch to water corn and wheat, beans and peppers. To grind their corn and wheat, townsfolk started one of Colorado's first grist mills. They also decided to take up Bishop Lamy's offer: While visiting in 1854, the bishop had promised to send a priest if the people would build a church. With the communal energy that made Conejos one of the first successful colonies in Colorado, they went to work and, in 1857, celebrated completion of their church, which they called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
In 1858, Father Machebeuf said his first Colorado Mass at the little chapel at Conejos. It was a primitive jacal built of cedar posts stood on end and lashed together in stockade fashion. Adobe mud was plastered over to fill the cracks. This structure, though altered greatly over the years, is the oldest surviving Christian church in Colorado, but it is not, as is sometimes stated, the first. Louisa Ward Arps, in Faith on the Frontier: Religion in Colorado before August 1876, pointed out that the first non-Indian church in Colorado was apparently a Mormon log meeting house built in Pueblo in 1846 and in use for several years before an Arkansas River flood swept it away.
Initially, the Conejos church was tended as a mission by priests from Ojo Caliente, Arroyo Hondo, and Taos, three New Mexican parishes. In 1858, Bishop Lamy sent a resident pastor, Jos Vicente Montao. Father Montao founded a second Southern Colorado parish in 1860 at San Luis, the pioneer settlement on Culebra Creek. The San Luis church, Sangre de Cristo, became an independent parish with its own pastor, Joseph Percevault, in 1869. Sangre de Cristo parish helped establish and tend mission chapels at a dozen towns on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley, including Chama, San Acacio, San Francisco, San Pedro, Sierra Blanca, Trinchera, and Zapato.
Gabriel Ussel, who spent many years as a priest in the San Luis valley, recalled in his unpublished memoirs how he and Father Machebeuf traveled to the tiny villages for each town's feast day. Before dawn, by the light of pinon wood fires, priests and villagers met, for the morning chanted Mass, the procession, and that little world of people came from everywhere to participate in the religious festivity, and the usual innocent amusement of a happy people. The panorama of gaudy dress, the foot races, the horse races . . . short comedy all in the open air . . . enlivened by the musicians' band.
Guadalupe at Conejos became the mother church for at least twenty-five missions in the San Luis Valley and the San Juan Mountains to the west, including Alamosa, Antonito, Capulin, Cat Creek, Cerritos, Cumbres, La Jara, Mesitas, Osier, Pagosa Springs, and the mining camps on the headwaters of the Animas River. Some of these missions became churches, such as Sacred Heart parish in Alamosa. Others have disappeared, as have some of the towns. Many settlements that had oratorios, if not chapels, have vanished, leaving only forlorn little cemeteries and fragile folklore clues to now vanished Mexican villages.
While villages and missions came and went, the pioneer church at Conejos thrived. The Jesuits took over in 1871 with the arrival of Father Salvatore Persone. He soon was joined by three other Jesuit priests and, in 1877, Guadalupe parish built a convent and a school for the Sisters of Loretto, who opened Sacred Heart Academy as a private school and also taught in the public schools. The pioneer parish at Conejos spearheaded the Church's development in Southern Colorado with its academy and its many missions. Indeed, Our Lady of Guadalupe parish was second only in achievement to St. Mary's in Denver, where Father Machebeuf was also busy building firm foundations for what would become the Vicariate Apostolic of Colorado in 1868.
Arrival in Denver
Joseph P. Machabeuf and his countryman, Father Raverdy, arrived in Denver on October 29, 1860. As Machebeuf wrote later, they were obliged to camp out on the 2 bare lots donated in Denver by the Express Co. and having no neighbors but squirrels [prairie dogs] and rattlesnakes. . . . We walked around to see, not the city, but the little village of Denver, made up of low frame stores, log cabins, tents and Indian wigwams on the banks of the Platte.
The handful of Catholics in Denver had acquired two lots at 15th and Stout streets and materials to build a fifty-by-thirty-foot chapel. This "pile of bricks and shingles was shown to us way out on the prairie," Machebeuf reminisced:
We all said, "what a folly to build a church so far from the town." Although in those days I was not lame, it tired me to walk to the spot . . . We could not continue to camp in the big city of Denver . . . so I contracted to have a house built in eight days for $75 . . . in the rear of the church. In the little shack tacked onto the rear of the church, Machebeuf and Raverdy used "our coats for a pillow" and a "mattress made up of our buffalo robe." Machebeuf begged, borrowed, and bought materials, then recruited volunteer labor to complete the church in time to say the first Mass on Christmas Eve, 1860, in the windowless, unplastered church. On Christmas morning, Father Raverdy sang a second Mass in Latin colored by his rich French accent. Father Machebeuf, who said the rosary daily, named the church for his special love, St. Mary.
"Our people," he noted, "were proud to have the first brick church in Denver." St. Mary's offered musical Masses as Machebeuf had brought a melodeon with him from Santa Fe. Machebeuf acquired "a fine new Gothic case organ," according to the Rocky Mountain News of January 22, 1863, and St. Mary's began offering classical Masses by composers such as Mozart. Yet, the church remained windowless and unfinished for several years until Father Machebeuf embarrassed parishioners by threatening to go south among the Mexicans "to ask them for some of their pesos to put windows in the church for the Catholics of Denver."
Bishop John B. Miege
Slowly, the slender, cultivated French priest settled in at the raw frontier crossroads hundreds of miles from any city. He began to appreciate why Bishop John B. Miege, the first vicar apostolic of Kansas, had requested that the Denver parish be transferred to the Diocese of Santa Fe even though Colorado east of the Rockies, north of the Arkansas, and south of the fortieth parallel was part of Kansas until the creation of Colorado Territory in 1861. Miege, a Jesuit scholar turned bishop, had toured Denver in the spring of 1860 and, on May 27, said the city's first Mass in Guirard's store at the corner of 15th and Market streets. G. Guirard—a merchant from Paris, France, who was Denver's first lay leader—and Bishop Miege persuaded the Denver City Town Company and the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company to donate block 208 and much of block 139 to the Catholic Church. Block 208 (15th to 16th streets between Court and Tremont places) and block 139 (15th to 16th streets between California and Stout) were both on the outskirts of town but would become valuable as Denver grew.
After thus securing a toehold in Denver, Bishop Miege toured the mining regions—Central City, South Park, and Oro City. Of his Colorado tour, he wrote that "at least 100,000 men [are] bound for Pike's Peak. . . . I am doing all I can to dissuade the Catholics from going, firmly convinced as I am that danger for the soul and body is inevitable there, and for one who may succeed there will be at least fifty who will be ruined forever."
Miege wrote to the archbishop of St. Louis, Peter Richard Kenrick, requesting that he petition Rome to transfer the Pike's Peak region to the jurisdiction of the bishop of Santa Fe. Bishop Miege confided to his brother on July 15, 1860: "This will be my first and my last trip to the mountains, because Rome has seen fit, at my request, to confide the administration of that part of Kansas to the Bishop of New Mexico. My burden has thus been alleviated. May the Good God be blessed for it." Santa Fe, Meige pointed out, was only 350 miles from Denver while Leavenworth was over 500 miles away. Bishop Lamy, despite his severe shortage of priests, reluctantly accepted the responsibility for the Pike's Peak region. "I do not like to part with you," he told his lifelong friend and vicar general, Father Machebeuf. "But you are the only one I have to send, and you are the very man for Pike's Peak." Lamy could only smile and concede when Machebeuf agreed, on the condition that he be given an assistant—young Father Raverdy—and a little cash before embarking on this monumental mission.
St. Mary Church: his first Denver mission
From his headquarters in the wooden shed behind St. Mary Church in Denver, Father Machebeuf presided over his huge parish. Once St. Mary's was completed, he responded to urgent appeals to visit the new mining towns along Clear Creek. On this mountain stream, John H. Gregory had found a mother lode in Gregory Gulch in 1859. Almost overnight, Mountain City, Black Hawk, Central City, Nevadaville, Russell Gulch, and a dozen smaller gold camps sprang up in the area hastily organized as Gilpin County.
By the spring of 1861, Central City and its satellite mining towns had more people than had Denver. Machebeuf hitched up his mules and buggy and joined the throng streaming up Clear Creek Canyon. The masses were in search of gold, while the priest was determined to establish the first mission of his Denver parish.Upon arriving in Central City, Machebeuf reported:
The only place I could find to say Mass in was a kind of theatre and I had to put up the altar on the stage. A pretty good number of Catholics and others attended. At my second visit, Mass was said in a vacant billiard hall, and it required the work of two good men to clean and scrape the floor. On Machebeuf's third visit, he said Mass in a dance hall and on the fourth in an empty storefront: "Tired of looking at every visit for a new place, I posted a safe man at the door and told him . . . to lock the door and bring me the key." With his Central City parishioners thus corralled, Machebeuf announced, "Now my good men, none of you will go out until you contribute or subscribe for a church."
John B. Fitzpatrick, a mining man, laid $50 in gold dust on the altar, and others followed his example. A Central City parish was organized and named, at Machebeuf's urging, St. Mary's. By 1862, Machebeuf had purchased the house at 135 Pine Street and converted it to a church whose membership grew even more quickly than that of St. Mary's in Denver. A school and convent were added in the 1870s. Machebeuf sent Father Raverdy to be the first pastor in Central City. When he received a third priest for Colorado, Thomas M. Smith, he assigned him to Central City and returned Father Raverdy to Denver.
Bishop Lamy, on his way to the May 1861 Provincial Council of Bishops in St. Louis, visited Machebeuf for the first time. After spending two weeks with Machebeuf and Raverdy in Denver, the bishop and Machebeuf toured the mountain towns. The bishop marveled at booming Central City, a conglomeration of shacks, mines, mills and shops perched over Gregory Gulch; he called it "the most curious sight I ever saw." In a May 10, 1861, report to Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis, who oversaw the western half of America while the archbishop of Baltimore supervised the East, Lamy declared:
If the mines continue to prove valuable, Colorado Territory cannot fail of becoming important. . . .The climate is rather mild and pleasant with the exception of some high winds in the spring. . . . Two or three more churches will probably be built this year in that new country.
Other missions and parishes
Despite Lamy's optimism, Machebeuf's second mission was not founded until 1866 on the south fork of Clear Creek in Colorado's pioneer silver mining town, Georgetown. Our Lady of Lourdes parish thrived during the pastorate of one of the ablest of Machebeuf's priests, Nicholas C. Matz, who established a hospital as well as a school in the silver city that became the Clear Creek County seat. The other large town in the county, the gold mining and hot springs tourist town of Idaho Springs, gained its own parish, St. Paul's, in 1881.
Machebeuf and Raverdy spent much of their time traveling through the mountain mining camps, saying Mass and offering the sacraments. "While among the highest mountains at California Gulch," Machebeuf wrote to his brother Marius in 1862, "I fell sick of the mountain fever, and I was two months without being able to say Mass." Concerned, Bishop Lamy ordered his Colorado pastor back to New Mexico to recuperate. The "care and good old wine of Father Paulet contributed not a little to the reestablishment of my strength," Machebeuf reassured his brother.The following year, Machebeuf suffered an even more serious mishap when his buggy overturned on the Big Hill Road to Central City. A physician hurriedly and inexpertly set the priest's broken leg, leaving him with a permanent and painful limp. The hardships he endured did not blind Machebeuf to the glory of the rugged peaks he labored among. Archbishop Salpointe of Santa Fe recalled, eulogizing his fellow priest, "Oh, how he loved these mountains! . . . I have heard him tell of their beauty and their splendor, and how they seemed to him like great, strong, lonesome prayers reaching up to heaven."
Despite disabilities, Machebeuf traveled to Utah, the western half of his parish. He visited with Brigham Young, head of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, and made arrangements to send a priest. Father Raverdy and Father Smith took turns at trying to plant a church among the Mormons, with little success. Machebeuf did receive one bit of welcome mail from Salt Lake City, however, when Father Raverdy sent him a box of peaches. Machebeuf sold them for a dollar each in Denver to pay for desperately needed improvements at St. Mary's. The most audible improvements were lugged out from St. Louis—an organ and Denver's first church bell, an 800-pounder hauled by oxen across the plains at a cost of $305.90. It could be heard five miles away and became the town bell as well as the church bell. This bell blew over and broke during a windstorm in the fall of 1864. It was replaced in 1865 by a 2,000-pounder.
In 1867, Machebeuf established the fourth Denver mission, St. Joseph's in Golden City, seat of Jefferson County, and the fifth, Sacred Heart of Mary, in Boulder, seat of Boulder County. Boulder became the first town in Colorado with two Catholic churches when Machebeuf authorized creation of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in south Boulder in 1875. St. Louis parish in the coal mining town of Louisville became the third Catholic church in the Boulder area in 1884.
During the late 1870s and 1880s, the brightest mineral boom in Colorado centered on the headwaters of the Arkansas River, where the silver city of Leadville sprouted up almost overnight in 1878. Two years later, it was the second largest city in Colorado. Machebeuf had opened a mission near there in 1860 at Oro City, a gold camp on California Gulch. Both the town and the mission, however, had faded before the silver boom attracted another, far larger swarm of miners.
Reverend Henry Robinson, who in 1874 had started a mountain parish in Fairplay, joined the rush to Leadville, where he founded Annunciation parish in 1879. Many of the miners pouring into Leadville were Catholics, particularly the Irish, Germans, Slavs, and Italians. Soon Leadville boasted St. Mary School, opened by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1882, St. Joseph's Slovenian Catholic Church, St. Vincent Catholic Hospital, a Catholic Hall, Catholic club rooms, and St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery. When silver was found at Aspen, Machebeuf authorized establishment of St. Mary mission, which became an independent parish in 1881. Edward Downey, the pioneer priest at Aspen, also founded St. Stephen parish, in 1885, in Glenwood Springs.
Silver discoveries in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado triggered the rise of towns—and parishes. St. Columba Church, founded in Durango in 1882, was the first. During the 1880s, this parish opened a school, a convent, and the Sisters of Mercy Hospital, the only hospital in southwestern Colorado at the time. A second Durango parish, Sacred Heart, was opened by the Theatine fathers in 1906 for Italians and Mexicans who complained they had been slighted at St. Columba's.
Father Machebeuf created three more parishes during the 1880s in southwestern Colorado. Robert Servant started St. Mary's in Montrose in 1883. Shortly afterwards, he reported to Bishop Machebeuf that he had been doing missionary work in Montrose when a gang of ladies from Ouray more or less kidnapped him. In Ouray, the ladies had Father Servant start hearing confessions at 6 P.M. Saturday night. "I heard confessions until 12 o'clock that night," Father Servant reported and, at the 6 o'clock Mass the next morning, "more than 100 received communion."
Ouray Catholics bought an old Protestant church and offered it to Bishop Machebeuf if he would only send a priest. In 1886, Machebeuf was able to oblige them by sending a resident priest, Lawrence M. Halton, to establish St. Patrick Parish. Two years later, Halton was succeeded by the renowned James Joseph Gibbons, who left a classic account of the area, in his book, In the San Juan, Colorado Sketches.
Another mining town parish that survives to this day is St. Patrick's in Silverton. St. Patrick's became a full-fledged parish in 1884 with the appointment of Edmund Ley as the first resident pastor. A later pastor, Cornelius O'Rourke, drowned while circuit riding among missions in Eureka, Telluride, Marshall Basin, Howardsville, and Red Mountain. To the mineral-rich San Juan Mountains—Colorado's most rugged and re-mote range—Machebeuf sent missionaries and parish-builders on the heels of the mining rushes. Catholicism has a long, strong history in the silvery San Juan—an accomplishment symbolized by Silverton's huge marble shrine, Christ of the Mines.
While mining towns burst suddenly into brilliant prominence and then faded, Denver showed more stability. The town had stagnated, despite golden predictions, during the 1860s. The arrival of railroads in 1870 changed all that. Denver's population septupled, from 4,769 in 1870 to 35,629 in 1880. Colorado, whose population had grown from 34,277 in 1860 to 39,864 in 1870, likewise began to boom. The number of Coloradans quintupled during the 1870s, reaching 194,327 in 1880. The bonanza days of mining and railroading continued during the 1880s, bringing the state's population to 412,198 by 1890. In 1870, a third of the forty-seven churches in Colorado Territory were Catholic. Their numbers mushroomed during the 1870s and 1880s: Many of the 372,334 newcomers were Catholics, most notably the Germans, Irish, and Italians.
Father Machebeuf becomes a bishop
Father Machebeuf and his handful of priests were swamped. At the urging of Bishop Lamy in Santa Fe, Church officials tried to help out. Despite his protests, Father Machebeuf was made bishop of Colorado and Utah. He traveled to Cincinnati that year to receive the purple robes. Archbishop John B. Purcell, with whom Machebeuf had come to America in 1839, consecrated him on August 16, 1868. The new bishop shared more apprehension than joy in a letter to his sister:
I . . . tremble at the thought of such a position . . . my responsibility is already too heavy. . . . Pray always for the poor cripple. . . . Pray earnestly for me, and that the blessings of God may be on my future work [in] a diocese larger than the whole of France.
To Bishop Machebeuf's relief, his huge vicariate was cut in half in 1871 when Utah was transferred to the San Francisco archdiocese. The new bishop, in 1873, transformed Denver's tiny St. Mary church into a miniature cathedral, extending it in front to the Stout Street sidewalk and adding side chapels. The infectious boosterism of the Queen City of the Mountains and Plains animated Machebeuf's June 22, 1872, epistle back to France: "Denver has more than doubled its population in two years. We were obliged to transform and enlarge our church by additions to the front and both sides."
St. Mary's was enlarged as Denver was rapidly becoming a city. The rail age ushered in a new urbanity that included the 1871 introduction of streetcars and gas street lighting, followed in 1872 by a drinking water system. Bishop Machebeuf, who never lost his love of gardening, was particularly delighted with the Denver City Water Company, whose drinkable water now supplemented the old ditch-water system:
Its iron pipes are buried three feet under the principal streets, with hydrants in case of fire, and the lawns, gardens, and houses upon every floor are furnished with water. Our walks, bordered with shrubs and flowers, are sprinkled by means of rubber tubes which a child can handle, and the force of the water is such that a stream can be sent to any part of the yard by merely directing the nozzle. The streets are lined with trees, and the houses with their lawns give beauty and healthfulness. . . .You see that our town is putting on the airs of a great city.
The once vacant prairie around St. Mary's blossomed with neat brick homes of prospering Denverites, including a small house Machebeuf built for himself next to the church. Bishop Machebeuf planted a white clover lawn and a garden where he grew onions and grapes, radishes and green chili.
Sisters of Loretto
The bishop's struggling vicariate also began to flourish. In 1875, Bishop Machebeuf awarded Colorado's first high school diploma to Jessie Forshee, who was graduating from St. Mary's Academy. (Jessie Forshee later became Sister Mary Vitalis, a Sister of Loretto who founded The Loretto Magazine, taught at Loretto Heights College in Denver, and became dean of studies at Webster College in St. Louis.)
For St. Mary's Academy, Machebeuf's pet project, he had purchased the home of George W. Clayton, a prominent pioneer businessman. This fine two-story frame house had cost Machebeuf $4,000 in 1864. The spacious yard stretched from 14th to 15th streets along California Street and was only a block from St. Mary's Church.
To staff the school, Machebeuf sought out the Sisters of Loretto. He was impressed with these nuns who had done so much good in New Mexico. Back in 1855, he had escorted the first contingent of sisters to Santa Fe from their motherhouse in Kentucky. Nine years later, three of the sisters in Santa Fe agreed to come to Denver. Sisters Beatrice Maes, Ignatia Mora, and Joanna Walsh slept little on the bouncy stagecoach ride from Santa Fe. Father Raverdy accompanied them and tried to assure them that they would not be scalped. That summer of 1864 Colorado was engaged in the bitter, bloody Indian war that would culminate in November with the massacre of Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne at Sand Creek.
St. Mary's Academy, founded on June 27, opened for business on August 1, 1864. Even Protestants, eager to have some refinement in the wild and woolly town, celebrated. Now, their daughters could learn French and be introduced to manners and to the liberal arts without going back East. Editor Byers of the Rocky Mountain News welcomed the "Sisters School" in his July 20, 1864, newspaper.
Reinforcements reached St. Mary's Academy by year's end with the arrival of sisters Ann Joseph Mattingly, Luisa Romero, and Agatha Wall. Machebeuf converted upstairs rooms of the Clayton house to a convent and helped the Sisters of Loretto transform one room into a chapel. He doted on these young women, who must have amazed the frontiersmen who stepped from Denver's rough wooden sidewalks into dirt streets to let them pass. In summer, Machebeuf proudly brought flowers and vegetables from his garden to the nuns. In winter, he chopped their wood. He looked forward to saying Mass for them every day and teaching in their Sunday school. Five more sisters came to St. Mary's with Machebeuf when he returned to Denver in 1868 after being consecrated a bishop. By 1880, nineteen nuns taught forty boarding students as well as many day students, Catholic and non-Catholic.
St. Mary's initially accepted boys, but as the number of female students increased, it was converted to an all-girls school. St. Mary's Academy, as the Rocky Mountain News noted on April 6, 1867, "flourished to a degree beyond the most sanguine hopes of its founders." Machebeuf began efforts to found a private boys' school but was unable to interest any of the orders until the 1880s. In the meantime, Denver lads could get a Catholic education at the parish school that Machebeuf launched at St. Mary's in Denver in 1871. Although overshadowed by St. Mary's Academy, this parish school survived to become the Cathedral School. Like St. Mary's, it was staffed by the Sisters of Loretto.
The first order of nuns to work in Colorado is still the state's largest sisterhood; at least, 1,000 of the black-robed sisters of Loretto have labored in the state since 1864. Their St. Mary's Academy is still the state's premier girls' school and Loretto Heights for years was Colorado's only women's college. At first, Colorado seemed a wild and rugged land of godless gold seekers, a challenge to these civilizing sisters. Yet, Sister Joanna Walsh and the pioneer nuns at St. Mary's Academy found consolations—the climate and the scenery could be heavenly. On their journey from Santa Fe, Sister Joanna had persuaded Father Raverdy and the driver to stop for a picnic at the Garden of the Gods, where she found
The ground was literally carpeted with flowers of various hue. There they had been for ages, spread out in a panoramic beauty and "born to blush unseen," till the speculators of the 19th century invaded their precincts. But still more affecting was the sight of the monuments, never touched by sculptor's chisel, yet they stand in their various forms of fantastic grandeur the gigantic labor of tertiary seas, hewn out of sedimentary rock. . . . One instinctively turns in admiration, praise, and adoration to consider the greatness and immutability of God.
These nuns brought not only religion, but also the arts and sciences to Colorado. The highest state would become a stronghold of the order that had originated in what is now Loretto, Kentucky, when, on April 25, 1812, Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, and Ann Havern had formed a religious community to educate the children of the Appalachian frontier. Charles Nerinckx, a Flemish priest, became the sisters' mentor and helped them draw up a simple rule to guide the order. Besides St. Mary's Academy, the sisters conducted sixteen other schools in Denver and throughout the state.
Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth
In 1864 and 1868, Machebeuf asked Bishop Miege to send a colony of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth to Denver to start a hospital. Machebeuf acquired a ninety-acre site, the St. Vincent's Addition in what would become the Globeville neighborhood, but his projected St. Vincent Hospital never progressed past its foundations, which stood forlorn on the prairie for decades. Machebeuf and Raverdy also raised hundreds of dollars for a Central City "Invalids Home," only to have their fund raiser, James T. "Rascal" Ritchie, run off with the proceeds.
In 1872, the first Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth arrived in Denver. After Mrs. William Perry donated a small home at 1421 Arapahoe Street, Sister Superior Joanna Brunner and sisters Theodora McDonald, Veronica O'Hara, and Mary Clare Bergen opened Denver's first private hospital there on September 22, 1873. Bishop Machebeuf announced at the opening that "the Sisters of Charity are now ready to receive patients without any distinction of nationality or creed."
The sisters did all the nursing, cooking, washing, and housekeeping, and a good deal of the doctoring. Their hospital filled rapidly, forcing the nuns to live in the attic and to use the kitchen as an operating room. Still, the sisters would not turn anyone away: They practiced their order's motto—"the greatest of these is charity."
In 1874, the sisters moved their hospital to a larger building at 26th and Market streets. Someone pointed out that Market Street was Denver's notorious red light district, filled with "nymphs du pave," "soiled doves," and "the brides of the multitude." When asked why they had chose such a questionable location, Sister Joanna replied, "We ll take the question out of the neighborhood."
Perhaps the sisters had second thoughts because shortly afterwards, they moved their hospital into the Wentworth House (later the St. James Hotel) at 1528 Curtis Street. They moved for the last time, in 1873, to the northeast corner of East 18th Avenue and Humboldt Street, where former Territorial Governor William Gilpin donated the first lot of what would become a multiblock complex. On moving to the new site in 1876, the sisters renamed their hospital St. Joseph's They were honoring not only the foster father of Jesus but also their own bishop, Joseph Machebeuf.
St. Joseph's completed, by 1878, a $40,000, eighty-bed hospital. Among its many supporters was John Evans, a staunch Methodist and Colorado's second territorial governor. He donated $1,000 in 1880, along with a note praising "the devoted attention and skillful care given to the sick by the ladies of your order." Dennis Sheedy, a wealthy banker and cattleman, donated money and beef from his Greenland Ranch. Another fan of St. Joseph's was Mrs. J.J. Brown, later lionized as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown." She chaired the group which staged a "gigantic city-wide bazaar," that raised $10,000 to expand St. Joseph's along Franklin and Humboldt streets.
The Rocky Mountain News, of August 31, 1891, praised St. Joseph's for turning "nobody from its doors. . . . The Sisters have hid themselves in the garret in order to make room for the increased number of sick." Such community support enabled the nuns to replace their 1879 building, during the 1890s, with the twin-towered landmark designed by two of Denver's more prominent architects, the Baerresen brothers. This eight-story brick hospital with 150 beds stood until the 1960s.
Surviving admissions books reveal that the first patient was twenty-six-year-old Dennis Morrow, who died a month later of one of the deadliest diseases in early Denver—typhoid. Other killers included acute alcoholism, consumption, diphtheria, dropsy, dyspepsia, erysipelas, insanity, mountain fever, nervous debility, pneumonia, and rheumatism. In one case, the sisters listed as the cause of a patient's death: "Was shot!! In a drunken row!!"
In a violent town accustomed to "lead poisoning" and "rope burn," these nursing sisters and the private physicians using their hospital offered the quaint treatments of nineteenth-century medicine. In 1899, four years after the discovery of X-rays, St. Joseph's introduced this magical diagnostic aid to Denver. While physicians offered new experimental treatments along with classical solutions—blood-letting, cupping, and purging—the nuns resigned themselves to making death as comfortable and dignified as possible, preparing patients for the next life. A fifth of the patients were nonpaying indigents who received the same gentle care as the wealthiest Coloradans, who, by 1900, were paying $25 a week for a private room.
The Sisters of Charity were a welcome sight in early Colorado. They traveled the streets in pairs in their distinctive black and white habit, begging for funds to continue their work at St. Joseph's and, in 1879, to open their second hospital, St. Vincent's in Leadville. The good sisters, reported the Leadville Chronicle in its front-page welcome, "had heard that up here on the world's mountain top was sickness, sorrow and despair, and they came to comfort." At the sight of these sisters in the silver city, the Chronicle continued, "many a rough, long-bearded, coarsely appareled miner uncovered his head." Miners gladly paid a dollar a month to St. Vincent s—and other mining town hospitals—a fee that entitled them to full, free health care. St. Vincent's, which completed a new million-dollar hospital in 1964, still serves Leadville. Since 1895, the order has also owned and operated St. Mary Hospital in Grand Junction.
While the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth founded and ran hospitals, another motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity concentrated on Catholic education. The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati first came to Colorado at the invitation of Bishop Machebeuf in 1869, when five nuns opened Holy Trinity School in Trinidad on a site donated by Don Felipe Baca. The "Sisters' Academy" stood at the corner of Church and Convent streets until 1926, when it moved into a new facility and added a high school program.
Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati
The sisters from Cincinnati opened Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad in 1889. This large, three-story stone building received many additions and improvements over the years, opening in 1893 what claimed to be the first Catholic nursing school west of the Mississippi River. Mt. San Rafael served as the only major hospital in Las Animas County. During the 1970s, the county replaced the old structure with a larger modern hospital. Somewhat to the embarrassment of the sisters it subsequently gained national fame for sex change operations. Located on the same site off East Main Street, the new hospital features a twelve-by-twenty-eight-foot ceramic tile mural in the lobby, created in 1982 by Sister Augusta Zimmer who made her three dimensional mural a spectacular, colorful overview of Trinidad's rich history.
The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati were quite active in Pueblo, also. There they established schools, beginning with St. Patrick's grade and high schools in 1885 and 1887 respectively, and St. Mary Hospital in 1882.
In Colorado Springs, the order took over the Albert Glockner Memorial Sanatorium in 1893. It was renamed Penrose Hospital after Julie Penrose, widow of Colorado Springs millionaire and bon vivant Spencer Penrose, who donated $5 million to build new facilities during the 1950s. The sisters also care for the beautiful Pauline Memorial Chapel behind the Broadmoor Hotel, and Divine Redeemer School established in 1955. Julie Penrose, in 1945, gave the Penrose mansion—El Pomar—to the Sisters of Charity, who converted it into the Julie Penrose Center, which houses a variety of programs for all religious denominations. Brockhurst, a center for chemically dependent adolescents, and Rigel Center for alcoholics have also been opened in the Springs by the sisters.
Since Vatican II, the Sisters of Charity have served in diverse ministries, ranging from Denver's Margery Reed Day Nursery to Trinidad's St. Joseph Home, an activity center for the underprivileged. The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati have worked long and hard in Colorado, continuing the work Bishop Matz praised in his 1891 letter to the order's mother superior at Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse in Cincinnati:
I come again to knock at your door, this time I hope and pray not in vain. Educated at St. Mary's of the West and having known your devoted Sisters, I have learned to love them and since my more intimate acquaintance with them in the Far West, in Denver and Trinidad, where I have been an eyewitness to their noble work, carried out most successfully, I am more anxious still to secure them.
Sisters of Mercy
While the Sisters of Charity opened many pioneer schools, the Sisters of Mercy introduced hospital care to many Colorado communities. In mining regions, the sisters found that the usual litany of diseases and accidents were compounded by the dangers of mining and smelting—high-risk occupations that regularly maimed, killed, or left survivors with chronic lung problems. The first four Sisters of Mercy came to Denver from St. Louis by train on February 11, 1882. They were warmly welcomed by Bishop Machebeuf and, at his request, went to Conejos to open a storefront hospital. A few months later, they moved on to build Mercy Hospital in Durango. As the Durango and San Juan mining region boomed, local miners, ranchers, and farmers donated land and helped the sisters build a three-story frame school.
The sisters' work led the Durango Times of April 30, 1882, to declare:
The Catholic Society is always among the first in the field. Early last season it had completed in Durango . . . a church edifice of imposing proportions, the largest in the state west of the plains, and is just now completing a large three-story hospital and school building. . . . The Sisters of Mercy, that band of black-robed and devoted women whom we have all learned to reverence, have charge of the latter building and here-after no poor helpless wanderer need die uncared for in a strange land, however friendless, moneyless, or fallen.
Sisters of Mercy opened another hospital in Ouray—St. Joseph's —which they operated from 1887 to 1918. They provided loving care within this handsome, two-story granite hospital (now the Ouray County History Museum). Miners who had little use for religion came to appreciate the Catholic Church, as Reverend J.J. Gibbons observed in his book, In The San Juan, because of the gentle, skilled care of nursing sisters in rough-and-tumble mining towns. The sisters won many a convert to Catholicism as their patients prepared to face eternity.
In Cripple Creek, last and greatest of the Colorado gold cities, townsfolk implored the Sisters of Mercy in Denver to open a hospital. After Cripple Creekers donated a house on East Eaton Avenue, the sisters opened the first St. Nicholas Hospital there on January 4, 1894. In 1898, they moved into a much larger hospital across Third Street from St. Peter Catholic Church. Sister Veronica directed construction of this three-story brick and stone building, which boasted steam heat, electric lights, hot and cold water, and a surgery department. St. Nicholas Hospital also served as convent and school until 1924, when it was sold to Doctor W. Hassenplug. Still later, it became a city-owned and operated hospital, before closing as Cripple Creek's population shrank to several hundred year-round residents.
Denver's Mercy Hospital traces its origins to Bishop Machebeuf's 1889 request that the Sisters of Mercy open a home for working girls. That September, the nuns opened the Mater Misericordiae Home in a rented frame building in the 1600 block of Lincoln Street. Shortly afterwards, they moved their home to 19th and Stout streets and changed the name to St. Catherine Home. In 1892, the Mercy nuns bought a three-story brick building in the 1400 block of California Street from the Sisters of Loretto for $105,000, then remodeled it as St. Catherine Home for Working Girls. Besides cheap room and board and an employment bureau, St. Catherine's offered a night school with courses in cooking, dressmaking, needlework, music, painting, and sewing.
The Sisters of Mercy lost the St. Mary's site in the panic of 1893, but by renting two floors of a hotel at 1650 California Street, they kept the home alive until 1899. That year, they moved into a building at East 16th Avenue and Detroit Street, on the south side of City Park, where they operated St. Catherine Home. Shortly after 1900, the sisters closed St. Catherine Home to concentrate their efforts on building a hospital.
On August 27, 1900, the sisters bought six lots at 16th and Milwaukee streets for $4,650 and hired David Dryden, a Denver architect, to design the first building. This five-story, blond brick and red sandstone structure, executed in the Spanish colonial revival style, was dedicated on November 22, 1901, as the Mercy Sanitarium and Water Cure Institute for lung and nervous diseases. In 1903, the sisters reorganized Mercy as a general hospital. As its fifty beds soon filled, a $60,000, eighty-five-bed addition was completed in 1905.
Newspapermen noted the hospital's bright decor, including "highly polished floors covered with bright-colored Navajo rugs" and "walls tinted in soft pastel shades. The doctor's consultation room is furnished in Flemish oak and carpeted in rich green velvet." Opening-day visitors marveled at the modern surgical and medical wards, at the private rooms with mahogany furniture and brass beds, and at "a modern elevator that operates automatically." To help staff this bright new hospital, the Sisters of Mercy established an in-hospital school of nursing in 1904. Further additions were built in 1916 and 1917.
In 1887, three Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration arrived in Colorado Springs to staff the Colorado Midland Railway Hospital in a small adobe house. A year later, the sisters replaced it with a four-story structure, the still thriving St. Francis Hospital and Sanitarium. The Sisters of St. Francis, founded in Germany in 1863, had opened their first American motherhouse in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1875. They made Colorado Springs their western regional headquarters.
To help the Union Pacific railroad operate its new sixty-six-bed hospital at East 40th Avenue and Williams Street in Denver, Bishop Machebeuf enlisted the Franciscan sisters in 1884. These Franciscans had impressed railroad officials with their management of the main Union Pacific Hospital in the railroad's home town, Omaha, Nebraska, and the company probably gave Sister Beatrice, the superior, and sisters Haveria, Monica, Francisca, Columba, and Pauline a free ride to Denver.
The contract between the nuns and the Union Pacific specified that the railroad would pay $5.00 per day per patient to the sisters. Furthermore, the railroad promised to "furnish two horses, one ambulance, and two cows for hospital use." By 1889, fourteen sisters worked at the Union Pacific Hospital in Denver, where T.J. Fitzgerald served as chaplain.
Eight years after they began work at Denver's Union Pacific Hospital, the Franciscans decided to open their own hospital where they could care for everyone and anyone. To fund this ambitious undertaking, the nuns began begging in pairs: "Bitte, canst du mich gelt gaben f¨r das hospital? Danke!"
Particularly when they pleaded with German businessmen, and when they stationed themselves outside the Union Pacific paymaster's car on pay day, the sisters were successful beggars. With the proceeds, they purchased three blocks of land between the south side of Sloan s Lake and West Colfax Avenue. There, on June 14, 1892, Bishop Matz proudly dedicated the largest hospital in Colorado, a five-story, 180-bed, $175,000 haven for all colors, creeds, and ailments—St. Anthony's.
Establishment of charities
Bishop Machebeuf founded Colorado's first Catholic charity, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, on April 1, 1878, as a local unit of the worldwide charity founded in Paris by St. Vincent de Paul. By the 1880s, this society had raised and spent several thousand dollars a year on Colorado indigents, a mission it still pursues. Although the de Paul Society did what it could, the growing number of homeless children in the streets of Denver inspired Bishop Machebeuf to build the city's first substantial orphanage. The bishop persuaded the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to donate a site on the west side of Lowell Boulevard between West 41st and 44th avenues. Then he enlisted the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth to open the Mount St. Vincent Orphan Asylum on September 1, 1882, and it soon filled with 200 waifs.
After founding the asylum for boys, Bishop Machebeuf visited the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in St. Louis and persuaded them to open a Denver home for homeless and wayward girls on September 18, 1883. The mother superior of the Good Shepherd Home reported that Denver girls as young as ten were being exploited by pimps and began offering refuge to "penitents, magdalens, and preservates."
At first, the sisters cared for these girls in two frame houses on Galapago Street. In 1885, they moved to a larger Home of the Good Shepherd on Cherokee Street between Cedar and Byers avenues. Among the 300 girls there by 1900 were approximately fifty Sioux from North Dakota, for whom the sisters were remunerated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Home of the Good Shepherd next moved to a twenty-acre site, donated by John Vail, at East Louisiana Avenue and South Colorado Boulevard. The new Good Shepherd home opened in 1912 with a four-story main building that sheltered 650 children and teenagers. Older girls, including child abuse victims, unwed mothers, and former prostitutes, were taught sewing, stenographic skills, and domestic science. In 1929, with the help of $60,000 donated by Mrs. J.A. Osner, the old building was remodeled and a new chapel and Magdalen Home erected, only to be destroyed by a spectacular fire forty years later.
Members of the various religious orders, who remain anonymous for the most part, played an overlooked role in early-day Colorado. These sisters opened hospitals, schools, and orphanages, which were desperately needed in Colorado's nineteenth-century. Raw, new towns filled with hardened miners, ranchers, sodbusters, and railroad workers severely tested these nuns.
Although the mountain mines attracted the first rush of population and the first efforts of Bishop Machebeuf, farming and ranching towns slowly took root on the dry, wind-swept, sun-blasted eastern plains. Seventy-five miles south of Denver, General William J. Palmer founded the town of Colorado Springs in 1871, beside the tracks of his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. A little Catholic chapel, built in 1875, was sporadically visited by Bishop Machebeuf s missionary priests. Frederick Bender, one of the ablest priests in the diocese, transformed the struggling Colorado Springs mission into St. Mary's Church in 1877. The lovely red brick Romanesque church that Father Bender built boasted elegant furnishings, stained glass windows, pipe organ, and great bell. The Sisters of Loretto opened a parish school next door in 1885. St. Mary's Church, with its stately spire and impressive stone-step entry, remains a prominent landmark of old downtown Colorado Springs.
Forty miles south of Colorado Springs the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad revived Pueblo, an old town dating to the 1840s at the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. Pueblo had emerged as a trading fort and center for Spanish, French, and American mountain men. After the railroad arrived in the 1870s and the establishment of a steel mill, Pueblo quickly urbanized and requested parish status from Bishop Mache-beuf, who remembered the place from his 1860 stop on the way up to Denver. Then, Pueblo had been an adobe hamlet occupied by a few trappers and traders and a sprinkling of miners and Mexicans. Father Machebeuf had stopped long enough to say Mass, validate a few marriages, and baptize a number of children. Afterwards, Machebeuf or Raverdy had visited Pueblo on missionary trips.
In 1872, Machebeuf assigned Charles M. Pinto, SJ, as the first resident priest in Pueblo. A year later, Father Pinto had completed St. Ignatius Church, and the Sisters of Loretto from Denver opened Loretto Academy in 1875. The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati were also active in Pueblo, where they conducted parochial schools, at one time or another, in St. Patrick, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Therese parishes, as well as Pueblo Catholic High School.
Trinidad, a city near the Colorado-New Mexico border, was made a mission in 1866, and the first Holy Trinity Church was completed shortly afterwards. Four years later, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati established a convent and school in Trinidad. Sister Fidelis wrote to the motherhouse that Trinidad looked like a "hiding place for thieves and murderers . . . and everybody speaks Spanish."
In hopes of taming this tough town, the Sisters of Charity also volunteered to teach in Trinidad's first public school, an old adobe house donated in 1870 by Don Felipe Baca. By 1887, Trinidad had a public school, a private day school, and a private boarding school—all conducted by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Trinidad's dirt-floored, adobe-walled, mud-and-pole-roofed chapel was replaced by the fine stone church of the Holy Trinity after the Jesuits took over in 1875. From Holy Trinity, the Jesuits tended twenty-seven different missions in the ranch and coal mining towns of Las Animas County. Bishop Machebeuf and, later, Bishop Matz made a practice of visiting the church every year for the feast of the Holy Trinity.
In northeastern Colorado, the rise of agricultural towns at Fort Collins, Longmont, Brighton, Yuma, and Platteville brought pleas to Bishop Machebeuf to send priests and open missions, if not parishes. Machebeuf had visited French Canadian trappers at Laporte on the Cache la Poudre River in 1861 and watched with interest the establishment of nearby Fort Collins. As the fort grew into a town, Bishop Machebeuf purchased the old schoolhouse for $400 in 1878 and refitted it as St. Joseph's, the first Catholic church in Larimer County.
Longmont, a Boulder County farm town established in 1871 by the Chicago-Colorado Colony, included several Irish Catholics. After first meeting for Mass in the section house of railroad foreman Michael O'Connor, Catholics donated a site on which St. John the Baptist Church was built in 1882.
Brighton had originally been a missionary stop for William J. Howlett, the historian and priest, who tended the towns northeast of Denver in the Platte valley. Father Howlett, in his manuscript history of Colorado parishes, reported that he built a small brick church in Brighton, in 1887, that he and parishioners named for St. Augustine. Fifteen miles farther down the South Platte River, Father Howlett also helped establish St. Nicholas parish in Platteville in 1889. Out on the eastern plains, Bishop Machebeuf established another Catholic toehold in 1888—St. John's in Yuma.
Bishop Machebeuf and Protestants
Machebeuf, while struggling to gain a foothold in heavily Protestant Northern Colorado, did not neglect the south, where Catholicism prevailed. In those times of religious rivalry, Machebeuf was distressed to hear that Tom Tobin, a prominent pioneer rancher, had allowed John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister, to hold services at his ranch. Dyer, recalled in his autobiography, The Snow-Shoe Itinerant, that Tobin was less hospitable on his second visit. Reverend Dyer discovered that Machebeuf had complained to Tobin's Catholic wife, who had her husband put a stop to any Protestant services on his ranch southwest of Fort Garland.
Dyer, one of the few Protestant ministers to undertake missionary work in Southern Colorado, complained that Machebeuf "taught that none but Catholic clergy could solemnize marriage, or do anything right." One of the most respected and successful missionaries in Colorado, he continued his work, adding that, unlike Machebeuf and his priests, "I have a wife to help me."
In The Snow-Shoe Itinerant, Dyer claimed "that the Roman Catholics were reformed more by Protestants than by any other means." He may have been right: Critical scrutiny by Protestants probably helped keep Colorado Catholics on their best behavior. At any rate, they avoided major scandals such as those with which Lamy and Machebeuf had wrestled in New Mexico.
Anti-Catholicism was relatively mild in Colorado but evident in such documents as the 1876 state constitution, which specified Protestant chaplains for the legislature. Admiration, rather than hostility, was expressed by the first Episcopal missionary bishop of Colorado, George M. Randall. In Bishop Randall's first report to the Board of Missions of the Protestant Espiscopal Church in 1866, he declared:
We must . . . learn wisdom from the Romanists. Their priests are indeed ever in the vanguard of their missionary army, but their school teachers follow closely after. . . . They exhibit a tender solicitude for the lambs of other folds. . . . Episcopalians are sending their daughters to the Convent [St. Mary's Academy in Denver] because it is the best school in the territory.
Sectarian differences gave way to personal regard in many cases, and to admiration for accomplishments in the face of adversity. John Evans said of Machebeuf:
He knew I was an earnest Protestant. But our friendship never faltered on that account. He was too wise and just and good. . . . Bishop Machebeuf was not only a good Christian, he was a good, patriotic and enterprising citizen. . . . He labored in all things to promote the ascendancy of the Catholic Church. . . . a motive that brings forth such works as these cannot be essentially bad. I have cooperated in a small way, in most of his charitable labors. . . . He not only aided the poor with a crust of bread and a cup of cold water, but he organized societies for their relief. He heard the orphan's cry and he founded asylums. . . . He early saw the importance of education and he founded schools, seminaries and colleges.
Bishop Machebeuf's strong defense of Catholic schools drew much criticism. At the 1876 Denver convention to draft a state constitution, he and other religious leaders fought successfully to exempt churches, religious schools, and charities from taxation. Machebeuf further argued that public education funds should be allotted to Catholic schools, but he failed to persuade the convention.
Machebeuf's championship of Catholic schools and advice to his flock to avoid public schools if at all possible led Aaron Gove, the able, long-time superintendent of Denver public schools, to declare that, acccording to the January 18, 1878, Rocky Mountain News, "The Catholic Church is an enemy of the Public School. It is an honest, conscientious and honorable opposition, but it is nonetheless an opposition and we must meet it by all honorable means."
Bishop Machebeuf's struggle to build and staff Colorado's pioneer parishes was compounded by the intense rivalry among immigrant groups. Machebeuf had dealt with ethnic factions in New Mexico, trying to reconcile sometimes violent differences among Indians, Hispanics, and other nationalities.
The Frenchman fully acknowledged the pioneer role of Hispanics in planting Catholicism in Colorado: "Everywhere," Machebeuf declared, "we have seen proof of the zeal and the devotion of the first Spanish missionaries who came to water with their sweat and their blood this earth."
On his arrival in Denver in 1860, Machebeuf had been greeted by a few Frenchmen, including G. Guirard. Although a few other Frenchmen, many of them old trappers and traders, also welcomed Machebeuf, he found Germans to be the most common foreign-born group in Colorado. At the urging of these Teutons, he authorized creation of Colorado's first national parish, St. Elizabeth German parish in Denver, in 1878. The national parish designation allowed a parish to incorporate the members' native tongue and culture into its liturgy and activities. Latin, of course, remained the official language of the Mass. National parishes welcomed all members of their ethnic group regardless of where they resided.
French-born priests at St. Mary's and German-born priests at St. Elizabeth's prompted other ethnic groups to request their own parishes. Sacred Heart (1879), the third parish in Denver, was guided by an Italian; Machebeuf recruited John B. Guida, SJ, the first of a procession of Jesuits to preside over Sacred Heart. The Irish, second in numbers only to the Germans among Colorado's foreign-born Catholic contingent, ballyhooed creation of St. Patrick's the first North Denver parish in 1881. The Irish considered themselves "Americans," with the implication that they spoke English—unlike the "foreign" French, Italian, and German Americans. With the arrival of Father Joseph P. Carrigan, at St. Patrick's in 1885, the Irish had a parish to call their own.
Other Denver churches accommodated a jumble of ethnic groups. If friction arose, pastors sometimes steered ethnic factions to their own Masses or reserved basement services for minorities struggling to raise money and membership for their own churches. Annunciation (1883), St. Joseph's (1883), Holy Family (1889), and St. Dominic's (1889) were all created during the Machebeuf era. These parishes in northwestern and northeastern Denver accommodated the thousands of new Catholics, who arrived during the booming 1880s, when Denver's population passed the 100,000 mark. By 1890, Denver was the second largest city in the West, second only to San Francisco and more populous than Los Angeles or any town in Texas.
Machebeuf tried to humor all the nationalities among his Colorado flock but did not hide his special fondness for the oldest and poorest group, the Mexican-Americans. He liked their custom of donating one day a week labor—or equivalent money—to the Church. He also admired their farming skill and the irrigation systems that they introduced to Colorado. "The American, the German and the Irish Catholic is really good," Mache-beuf once told Reverend Gabriel Ussel, "but give me the childlike and incomparable faith of the good Mexican . . . the ardent faith that moves mountains." While favoring Hispanic parishioners, Machebeuf—and his successors—sought priests trained in North American or northern European seminaries. The diocese did not recruit Spanish or Mexican priests, perhaps because they balked at using English and allegedly lacked discipline and training. Justifed or not, such cultural differences still haunt the Church in Colorado.
"My Irish Catholics," Machebeuf wrote to Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati on March 26, 1868, "have frequently manifested a strong dislike to my administration, caused first by my quick and passionate temper [and] by a scandalous Irish priest who I had to dismiss [and by my] opposition to the Fenian Brotherhood."
Father Raverdy, Machebeuf's first priest and his vicar after he became bishop, never really became comfortable with the English language and American ways, yet, Machebeuf wrote of Raverdy: "I thank God a thousand times for giving me such a co-laborer. What a comfort he has been to me in my loneliness and my troubles." On another occasion, Machebeuf revealed to his sister the pressure he felt:
Everywhere it is churches and schools to build or repair, new parishes to start, money to borrow, and I must see to it all myself. . . . On Saturday and Sunday I am priest and bishop . . . on Monday and the rest of the week I am banker, contractor, architect, mason, collector, in a word, a little of everything.
Father William J. Howlett
Machebeuf's struggle to find priests and money led him to make begging trips to the eastern United States and to Europe. He apparently accepted any priest he could get, which helps to explain the high turnover among Colorado's nineteenth-century pastors. Alcoholism and other illnesses, mental and physical, were no doubt problems, though rarely mentioned in surviving records. During Machebeuf's time, a half dozen priests did most of the parish building. None of them launched more churches than Machebeuf's first home-grown priest, William J. Howlett.
Howlett, the tenth of twelve children, came to Denver with his family in 1865. In his unpublished recollections, Howlett recalled the trip to Denver along the Platte River road. Between Julesburg and Denver, "there were no settlements . . . but there was occasionally a fortified ranch house" and "buffaloes so numerous it was impossible to count them." The Howletts rented a house on Welton Street near St. Mary's and found Denver "filled with wagons, mostly heavy freight wagons, bringing in supplies of all kinds . . . and distributing them to the various mining camps."
The Howlett family tended Father Machebeuf's farm on Clear Creek, raising wheat and cabbages in what would become Mt. Olivet Cemetery. William became Machebeuf's first American-born prot g . He taught at St. Mary's Academy and accepted Machebeuf's invitation to go to the seminary. At St. Thomas's in Bardstown, Kentucky, and at Saint Sulpice's in Paris, Howlett was financially supported by Machebeuf. After being ordained by the archbishop of Paris on June 11, 1876, young Father Howlett returned to Denver and the service of his benefactor.
Machebeuf promptly assigned him to St. Mary's in Central City, where Father Howlett brought stability to a parish ravaged by fraud, fire, and ethnic rivalry. Howlett was adept at dealing with his fellow Irishmen, who insisted on calling St. Mary's "St. Patrick s" and resented being supervised by the little "French" parish of St. Mary's down in flatland Denver.
Howlett became a favorite with the Irish, who urged that he be made Machebeuf's coadjutor bishop. Machebeuf, in an 1886 letter to Cardinal Gibbons, acknowledged that Father Howlett had in Central City "succeeded completely in conciliating all parties, administered the parish for seven years, paid off all the debts, which were heavy, and was enjoying the esteem and confidence of all." Howlett, however, according to Machebeuf, "had taken the uncouth manners and languages of the miners," becoming "too full of confidence in himself," making him unsuitable as rector of Immaculate Conception Cathedral; "still less would he be suited for coadjutor." If Howlett ever learned of his bishop's comments, he did not retaliate in his eulogistic biography of Machebeuf.
After stabilizing St. Mary's and its many mountain missions, Howlett s next assignment was Brighton. There he built the stone church that became St. Augustine's, and a string of missions at Fort Morgan, Brush, Akron, Sterling, and Julesburg, all of which ultimately became parishes. Father Howlett also handled assignments in Pueblo, Denver, Georgetown, Colorado City, and Loveland before his retirement in 1913.
Howlett retired to the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky, where he served as chaplain and devoted his last years to recording the history of the church in nineteenth-century Colorado. From Sister Marie Philomene Machebeuf, he acquired copies of her brother's letters. These letters, now in the Archdiocesan Archives at Denver, became the basis of Howlett's biography of the first bishop of Denver, published in Pueblo in 1908. Subsequent historians and the novelist Willa Cather, author of Death Comes for the Archbishop, are heavily indebted to Howlett, who also left three important unpublished manuscripts: his recollections; a history of many of the parishes in Colorado; and biographical sketches of some of the priests who had served in the state.
Monsignor Gregory Smith, who as a young priest visited Father Howlett at the Loretto motherhouse in Kentucky before the pioneer's death in 1936, recalled fifty years later:
He was the grand old man down there and took special concern with the novices. He was rather short and stout of stature, at least in his old age, a plain-spoken and affable sort. He was not a scientific historian, but he knew his subject well.
Money, as well as manpower, was a constant problem for Bishop Machebeuf. While soliciting loans and gifts from his own family, he confided to his brother in an 1868 letter that he was thus obliged to borrow money from the banks and from private individuals at very high rates of interest, . . . to secure at Denver favorable locations for churches, schools, convents, hospitals, cemeteries, etc. . . . and thus have increased my indebtedness to a considerable sum.
Colorado National Bank's surviving ledger books show Machebeuf to have been a frequent and heavy borrower at rates of interest ranging from 18 to 24 percent a year. As both loans and demands for new parishes, schools, convents, rectories, hospitals, and orphanages piled up, Machebeuf went East in search of money, priests and nuns. Armed with a testimonial letter from James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Machebeuf solicited support in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and other communities with Catholic capitalists.
Bishop Machebeuf finally found a financial angel in 1875, when Eastern prelates put him in touch with Eugene Kelly, a Catholic banker in New York City. Machebeuf, according to Howlett, had become an embarrassment to the Church because of his poverty and begging all over the country. Despite Machebeuf's rumored personal and episcopal bankruptcy, Kelly made two loans totaling $50,000 at 8 and 10 percent interest. This enabled the Colorado prelate to pay off his loans from Colorado National Bank and other Denver lenders. Kelly was a godsend to Machebeuf, who paid himself no salary and his priests only $400 a year, and faced interest payments of $5,000 a year by the end of the 1870's.
While churchmen found Machebeuf a financial embarrassment, some Coloradans saw him as a shrewd financier. It was no secret that he had accumulated property all over Colorado, including his 440-acre Clear Creek farm, part of which would become Mt. Olivet Cemetery. The bishop also acquired Denver parcels that, years after his death, would serve as sites for new parishes, schools, and hospitals.
Machebeuf, like Colorado capitalists such as John Evans, David H. Moffat, Jr., and Horace Tabor, mortgaged himself to the hilt, betting on Colorado's future. With the unshakeable optimism that characterized the great pioneers, he reasoned that land would only rise in value; it would be the best way to lay financial foundations for future church growth. Although accused of inept financial management, Machebeuf negotiated some rather sharp deals. In 1875, for instance, he sold to the county for $18,000 the block given to the church by the city in 1860. Eventually, the first county courthouse would be erected on that block, which was bounded by 15th and 16th streets and Court and Glenarm places.
Machebeuf, hounded and humiliated by debtors, wrote to Cardinal Gibbons on March 8, 1886: "It is surely hard for poor human nature after 47 years of hard missionary life in Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado in my old age of 74 to be under such a cloud . . . after having sacrificed myself and all I have for the church." Bishop Machebeuf celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a priest in Denver on December 16, 1886. It was a modest golden jubilee.
Someone asked the bishop if he dreamed of a grand cathedral to replace small, homely, old St. Mary's. He replied: "A cathedral is a question of money, of stone and mortar, while my work was, and should have been, a question of souls." Unlike his friend Archbishop Lamy in Santa Fe, who built a grand French-style cathedral, Machebeuf never built anything architecturally grand. Machebeuf clung to the landholdings he had struggled to acquire for the future of his diocese. In 1878, he went to see his family in France and tried to organize a bond sale in Paris to pay off Denver diocesan debts. This scheme resulted in another embarrassing debt when the aging bishop was hoodwinked by Parisian con men. Machebeuf's growing financial headaches were increasingly shared by several priests and laymen who, in 1884, organized the Colorado Catholic Loan and Trust Association to sell bonds and handle church finances. Notwithstanding growing concerns about his age and ability, Bishop Machebeuf negotiated a clever deal in 1887. He sold off twenty acres on the south side of Mt. Calvary Cemetery to Denver real estate developer Samuel B. Morgan for $20,000. Morgan transformed the tract along East 9th Avenue between Race and York streets into one of Denver's grandest residential neighborhoods, the Morgan Addition, designated a Denver Historic District in 1978.
Bishop Machebeuf's last days
After Omaha, Nebraska, was made a diocese in 1885, Bishop Machebeuf sought the same status for his vicariate apostolic. Besides recognizing Denver's importance and independence, such a promotion would aid fund raising. Rome concurred: On August 16, 1887, Pope Leo XIII elevated the Vicariate of Colorado to the Diocese of Denver. Machebeuf, because of his failing health and rising administrative and financial problems, was assigned a coadjutor. Nicholas C. Matz was appointed coadjutor with the right of succession, being consecrated bishop in St. Mary Cathedral on October 27, 1887.
This lessened Machebeuf's burden, but he did not retire from active work. Travel was made easier with the railroads extending throughout the state. Machebeuf sent his buggy ahead by rail to be waiting for him at the end of the line. This enabled him to continue his unending quest for Catholics in the mountains, plains, and canyonlands of Colorado.
Machebeuf became a familiar character around Denver, a simple gray-haired man, small of stature and limping painfully on his visits to churches, schools, and hospitals. His demeanor was described by Sister Blandina Seagale, S.C., in her autobiography, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail:
I have often noticed his very kind eyes—eyes full of sympathy which show at a glance that his thought is for others. His lower lip has the expression of a good grandmother who fears she never does enough for all of us who belong to her.
He had survived many illnesses and accidents in his long lifetime, both on the streets of Denver and on craggy mountain trails. Of Machebeuf's stamina, Howlett wrote: "His indomitable will fortified his body, which was so accustomed to finding its rest in action that it would not be strange if when death came it found him standing on his feet."
News of the death of his great life-long friend Archbishop Lamy, who had been like a brother, grieved Machebeuf. He hastened to Santa Fe in February 1888, to speak at Lamy's funeral. Machebeuf may have sensed in his great sorrow that his own call would come next. Later in 1888, he was present in Washington for the laying of the cornerstone of the Catholic University of America, but his strength was slipping.
The bishop reserved for himself a little room at St. Vincent Asylum, where it was his custom to retire for rest and quiet. On July 3, 1889, he went to this retreat. There, he calmly died on the morning of July 10, having received the last Sacraments from the hands of Bishop Matz. His body lay in state in the chapel of St. Mary's Academy. Thousands came to pay their last respects. Nearly 100 priests were present at his funeral on July 16, 1889, when a temporary tomb was prepared beneath the sanctuary of the St. Mary's Academy chapel. In 1891, after Bishop Matz opened Mt. Olivet Cemetery, the remains of Bishop Machebeuf were reinterred there in an 800-pound casket of solid cast iron with a glass top. Each of the priests present took up a handful of dirt, blessed it, and threw it gently upon the casket.
Monsignor Raverdy, Machebeuf's close friend and vicar general, was returning from Chicago when news reached him of Machebeuf's death. Raverdy himself was ill with a fatal disease, but he hurried on to Denver, arriving on the arms of assistants during the funeral service. A chair was placed near the coffin, where Raverdy wept over the corpse of his dear friend and prepared for his own death. It came barely four months later.
The Colorado Catholic, Denver's first Catholic newspaper, mourned Machebeuf on July 13, 1889:
In every hamlet, almost every home in this great state, his cheering words and patriarchal mien softened the hardened and quickened the thoughtless. His patient suffering of hardships incident to the establishment of religion where gold was god, his tiresome journeys—over the mountain passes which he, perhaps, more than any other fashioned to travel, his cheerful submission to conditions of life entailed by the newly opened country, his courage in dangers which appalled the bravest, and all inspired by zeal for God's honor alone— these touched every heart and made the name of Bishop Machebeuf revered, respected and beloved by all, without regard to creed or race. No man in the Rocky Mountain Country. . . has ever gone to his grave more universally respected for his sanctity of motive than the pioneer bishop of Colorado.
A century later, it is hard to disagree with the praise heaped on Machebeuf at the time of his death. He accomplished so much with so little, assuming frightening debts and running great risks. Certainly from a centennial perspective, his gambling paid off. Machebeuf—like other pioneer clergymen—did much not only for his Church but also for Colorado. The Church helped create a sense of community, a sense of caring and of permanence on the footloose frontier.
Bishop Machebeuf served as a moral authority at a time when gun-slinging sheriffs and primitive police departments were sometimes as lawless as their targets. The fragile frontier social order was reinforced by churchmen such as Machebeuf. Admittedly, some of the prejudices of the day were also reinforced by the bishop. For instance, he spoke sternly against women's suffrage. When Colorado's suffrage crusade began in the 1870s, Machebeuf blamed the agitation "on battalions of old maids disappointed in love" and on "women who, though married, wish to hold the reins of family government." Despite opposition from Machebeuf and many other churchmen, Colorado males voted to enfranchise women in 1893. While trying to establish a basic social order, Machebeuf displayed little interest in reform issues. His long sermons stuck to conventional and conservative themes, and their effectiveness may have been diminished by his frequent use of a spittoon.
Machebeuf and the Catholic Church played a large role in bringing refinement to Denver. In a city hungry for culture, the Church offered Masses by Mozart and promoted cleanliness and better dress—at least on Sunday. It introduced and sustained the fine arts, fostering music, art, and architecture. Although the practice would later be discouraged by both Church and state, Catholic nuns served as the first public school teachers in Southern Colorado towns such as Antonito and Trinidad. All over Colorado, the Church founded schools and advanced education, bringing classical liberal arts, culture and morals to remote frontier outposts.
Joseph Projectus Machebeuf's role may best be summed up by Howlett's words:
When Father Machebeuf came to Colorado in 1860 he was alone with Father Raverdy, without a single church, or roof over his head; when he was made bishop he had but three priests within his jurisdiction; when he died the Diocese of Denver counted 64 priests, 102 churches and chapels, 9 academies, 1 college, 1 orphan asylum, 1 house of refuge, 10 hospitals and over 3,000 children in Catholic schools.
This was primarily the work of one man, and that man was Bishop Machebeuf. In contemplating it we must concede that its author was a great priest, a great bishop, and merited well the title by which posterity shall know him: THE APOSTLE OF COLORADO. Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver
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© Karen Mitchell