Huerfano County, Colorado
St. Mary's Church
Contributed by Louise Adams
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St. Mary Church Commemorating…..Centennial by Nancy Christofferson - Huerfano World - June 1, 2000

St. Mary Church will observe its 100th anniversary this weekend with various activities.

Events open with an ice cream social for families in Our Lady Park, between the church and the rectory, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 3. The lawn social will feature different flavors of ice cream and toppings along with games for the children.

At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Pastor Richard Wehrmeyer, C. M., will preside over a special Mass with Monsignor Howard L. Delaney giving the homily. Delaney served St. Mary Parish for 27 years before he was reassigned to Pueblo.

Following Mass will be a Taste of the Peaks Jubilee Social in the Walsenburg Community Center.

Sunday's celebration begins with the 10 a.m. Mass with Bishop Arthur N. Tafoya presiding. Msgr. Delaney and Father Wehrmeyer will be con-celebrants. Bishop Tafoya will re-dedicate the church at this time.

At noon Sunday will be the Centennial Social in the Community Center where the Bishop and several priests who formerly served the parish will greet old friends and guests. Refreshments will be available.

St. Mary Church was originally opened June 10, 1900 and was dedicated by Bishop Matz. It was Walsenburg's fourth, and most imposing, Catholic Church.

St. Mary Parish was established in 1869 as Our Lady of the Seven Dolors by the Very Rev. Joseph P. Machebeuf. For about 10 years previously the area was served by visiting priests from New Mexico. These pastors celebrated Mass at several locations in Huerfano County, including La Veta, Walsenburg, Badito, Cucharas and six or seven placitas where people could congregate.

Father Joseph Percevault was appointed the first pastor of the new parish. He set about trying to find land for a church, and financing to build it. As a result, a small jacal and adobe church was built at the corner of Seventh and Main Streets but it was destroyed by fire less than three years later, in 1873.

In the summer of 1871 Father Luis Merles became pastor of St. Mary Parish. Fr. Percevault was assigned to the Gardner area, where he built a church and operated a school for several years before returning to Walsenburg to assist Merles.

Merles was pastor when fire destroyed the jacal church, so his task was to rebuild. A parcel of land near the Cucharas River and John Albert's old fort was obtained from Miguel Leon. An adobe church with stone foundation was constructed and opened in 1875.

Fr. Merles was killed when he fell from his wagon on Sept. 1, 1876. He was apparently answering a call in La Veta where Silverio Suaso had been terribly injured when Elebio Perea struck him in the head with a grubbing hoe. Suaso had just returned from the Republican convention but the problem was not political - the two had been arguing over a poker hand. Anyway, both Merles and Suaso died the following day. Merles was replaced in October by Father Gabriel Ussel.

The riverside location was no doubt a pretty one for a church, but in 1878 the river turned ugly, flooding and ruining the building.

So the congregation moved into the old Huerfano County Courthouse, an old structure in somewhat sad shape, for services until 1882, when another new church was completed.

This new $4,000 church was on East Seventh Street, just east of the present structure. It was built with many difficulties, financial and physical, and almost immediately the church was inadequate. A larger building was needed. Despite spending $500 on improvements in 1889, plans were being formulated to build a grander church.

Construction on the big brick church began in 1892. By the next year it was largely completed but the Panic of 1893 halted work. Over $17,000 had been spent on building.

A new campaign to solicit funds for finishing the building began in January 1898. In 1899 work had resumed and the plasterers were finishing up inside while someone painted a cross on the roof.

Shortly after the church was finished and dedicated, a second bell was installed. A blessing of the bells took place in late June 1900. It was noted that Leonides Valdez had donated the large window, costing $1,500, behind the altar. All of the windows were donated, and three of these were made in Bavaria. At the time, the church had 900 members and the collection one Sunday reaped a rather impressive $40.20.

In 1900 the stone fence around the church lots was built, then an iron fence was placed on top of it the next year. Also in 1901, the church wired for electricity, for 56 lights, in fact.

In October 1906 the women of the church decided to give a fundraising fair, supper and ball. This first annual St. Mary Fair netted $610.80 and became an annual event. For some years there was also a spring bazaar.

Fr. Ussel was responsible not only for building the fine new church, but his persistence finally brought about the opening of St. Mary School.

Not that he lived to see it. Ussel died in 1909 after serving the parish for 33 years, but in his will he left property and cash with which to start the school. His former assistant, Fr. Lefebvre, saw to its construction but died in 1912, leaving his successor, Fr. John Liciotti, to open St. Mary School. It was called Ussel Memorial School for a time.

Five Benectine sisters first operated the school in January 1914, with 500 students enrolled! By 1937, St. Mary was the largest Catholic school in Colorado.

Also in 1937, Fr. Liciotti said he had baptised the 20,000 baby to be baptised in St. Mary since records were first kept in 1870. A total of 3,400 marriages had been performed.

The church closed for a month that year to receive its first extensive repairs since it was constructed.

In January 1932, the colossal church steeple blew down in a windstorm. It was replaced by a modest steeple that added nothing to the appearance of the building. In September 1951 a more impressive tower and steeple, measuring 94 feet, was completed at a cost of less than $2,000.

This weekend, the 100 year old structure will receive its due respect when former priests and parishioners gather. To organize the Centennial celebration, a committee has been working for over a year, with their monthly meetings becoming weekly recently. Making this commemoration possible were Agnes Bechaver, Will Bechaver, Charlotte Benedetti, Ethel Campagnola, Oress DeHerrera, Mary Mae DeHerrera, Fran Lenzotti, Norma Lou Murr, Vernice Nardine, Debbie Read, Pat Sandoval, Mary Jo Tesitor, Rubie Tesitor, Mary Ann Trujillo, Helen Ugolini, Marge Vigil and Fr. Rich Wehrmeyer.

Also for this event, Msgr. Delaney's book relating the history of the parish has been re-released. All Our Yesterdays was written by Delaney in 1944 at the time of the Diamond Jubilee held in honor of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of St. Mary Parish, and contains many photos and data detailing the history of Walsenburg.

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