Deep in the Rocky Mountains lies the city of Aspen, considered one of the most hedonistic and wealthy places in the U.S. Yet, within the skiing paradise, abides also a vibrant parish that has sought to live out and share the living Gospel through beauty, creativity and faithfulness to Catholic teaching.
St. Mary’s Church has found a way to evangelize and thrive in a city that is anything but religious. Its many programs for children, youth, young adults and adults, and its evangelizing efforts have allowed it to evangelize now in a new way: Through a complete renovation of the historic parish building.
“We realized early on that if the parish does nothing [in such a secular city], it dies. We have to evangelize and be bold,” said Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary’s. “Parishes nowadays are called to be dynamically orthodox: Not watering down the faith, but remaining faithful to it in a creative way.”
The $7 million renovation will make St. Mary’s the most fully restored of all historic churches in Colorado, Father Hilton assured.
The goal of such a restoration is to make the parish building a teaching place, a “catechism set in stone,” he said: For centuries, the Church has catechized the faithful through architecture, images and statues, in a time when most parishioners were illiterate.
The church will be restored completely. The plan is to take it apart, put in all modern infrastructure, such as the duct and electrical systems, and put it back together.
The sanctuary ceiling will then be painted with stars to symbolize the marriage between heaven and earth during the Mass. Under the dome, 20 saints from the 20th century will be painted.
They are saints that parishioners can identify more closely with, Father Hilton said. Some of them include Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and Bl. Chiara Badano.
We realized early on that if the parish does nothing [in such a secular city], it dies. We have to evangelize and be bold.”
The ceiling will be divided into coffers and feature painted birds and trees, which will recall the Garden of Eden and remind the faithful that they are worshipping Christ, the New Adam.
The renovation has been a controversial project, said John Keleher, active parishioner for over 45 years and member of the parish building committee: Parishioners were worried that the church would be modernized and lose its historicity. However, one of the greatest goals of the renovation is to do the opposite, he said.
“Much of the historic in the building was removed and covered throughout the years. Now we seek to recover what was lost, celebrating our history and making the church a welcoming place,” Father Hilton added.
Such procedure is clear in the process taken to restore the beautiful wooden window frames and baseboards that were covered with layers of paint. Each piece was taken apart, numbered, varnished and put back in its place.
Fruit of evangelization
Founded in 1882, the church is one of the oldest parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver. It was built with the sweat of the miners during the Silver Boom under the leadership of missionary priests who would cross over one of the most difficult mountain ranges in the country – the Elk Mountains – to celebrate Mass and provide the sacraments.
The zealous spirit of the founders of St. Mary’s is alive in the evangelization efforts of the parish community today and has allowed the church to fundraise the necessary funds without compromising its financial stability.
Most of the funds were derived from friends of the parish all over the country. Contrary to common belief, most Aspen residents are not able to donate much to the church due to the tremendous cost of housing.
The generosity from friends all around U.S. comes from the fact that they fall in love with St. Mary’s Church and community.
“We try to make our visitors from all over the U.S. feel welcomed and we try to stay in touch with them,” Father Hilton said. “Most come from enormous urban churches and love the warmth of St. Mary’s. It becomes like their second parish.”
The evangelization and formation for the 350 families at St. Mary’s is wide and profound. Making Mass beautiful and solemn is a top priority, the pastor said. Furthermore, the church counts with numerous formation programs for all ages.
According to Father Hilton, the most important endeavor besides the Mass is the family faith formation nights. Once a week, families meet for formation, are divided into groups – sacramental preparation, youth, adults – and at the end gather for Eucharistic adoration.
Moreover, the parish hosts workshops with nationally-known speakers for the formation of parishioners and offers youth and young adult programs and hiking retreats, among others.
“This parish has been very welcoming to me,” Keleher said. “We are all striving to get to heaven. This parish community has helped me do exactly that.”
“As Catholics, we know that God uses the true, the good and the beautiful to bring us to him,” Father Hilton said. “We’re blessed to be in a unique position to restore our church to a high degree. Most churches don’t have the resources to do something like this.”