New mountain church offers ‘spiritual recreation’

Julie Filby

(UPDATED Oct. 2, 2014 with photos from Sept. 14 dedication, photos by Shannon Lukens)

Every summer thousands of Colorado families head over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs to mountain bike, fly fish, hike Fish Creek Falls, and soak in the hot springs. During the winter, skiers and snowboarders flock to the mountain resort on the western ridge of the Continental Divide for fun in the snow.

“We’re a destination town,” said Father Ernest Bayer, pastor of Holy Name Parish since 2005. “My vision is to give visitors two reasons to come: physical recreation and spiritual recreation.”

To accommodate the spiritual recreation of a congregation that doubles in size during the peak seasons, the parish recently completed a 15,382-square-foot expansion. The new church increased capacity from 300 to 600.

“During peak season we had standing room only,” Father Bayer said.

Work began on the small existing church at 524 Oak St. in July 2012 with contractor services provided by Fox Construction, owned by parishioner Tom Fox. Mountain-inspired architectural services were provided by Greenwood Village-based Eidos Architects.

“(A mountain architecture style) was accomplished through various geometries,” according to Mae Ann Saas of Eidos, “and heavy utilization of wood and stone in the design.”

“It’s meant to look like God’s holy mountain,” Father Bayer said. “Mount Zion.”

Features include an altar of Colorado red granite, a tabernacle of a bronze burning bush, a baptismal font with a lower pool for immersion, and a bell tower with four bells.

The capital campaign to fund construction launched in 2008.

“It took about six years to raise the money,” Father Bayer said of the $9.1 million project. “It’s a huge miracle, an example of how the body of Christ pulls together. God sent some very generous people our way, locals and out-of-towners.”

Fundraising efforts were energized when plans for stained glass windows were announced. Local artist and parishioner Greg Effinger was commissioned to design sets of windows, totaling about 166 sections overall.

“The windows are amazing,” Father Bayer said. “Everything’s original.”

Themes range from creation through Church history to the second coming of Christ, with an emphasis on the institution of the Eucharist in the Last Supper windows. Effinger worked with a team from the wider community to produce the windows, headed up by local stained glass craftsman and parishioner Georgian Kalow.

God put a “dream team” together to make the entire project possible, Father Bayer said of the parishioners, donors and workers.

“Lots of people worked very hard on it,” he said. “God’s doing wonderful things in Routt County … it’s an oasis in the midst of our crazy world.

“Come and see us,” he added. “We made room for you!”

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Archbishop Samuel Aquila will dedicate the new church at 4:30 p.m. Mass Sept. 14. For photos of the construction process, visit catholicsteamboat.com/church-expansion.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.