Evangelizing one of the richest, most secular cities in the U.S.

St. Mary’s Parish in Aspen restoring church to reach community

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.

St. Mary Parish in Aspen is undergoing a full restoration in an effort to better evangelize the secular town in which it is located. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

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.

In restoring the parish, much of the historic elements of the building are being uncovered after being removed and covered for years. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

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.

In addition to being one of the state’s skiing hotspots, Aspen is one of Colorado’s richest and well-to-do towns, making it a sometimes difficult setting to spread the truth of the Gospel, Father Hilton said. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

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.”

COMING UP: Guardian Angels Parish outgrows century-old frame church

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Guardian Angels Parish outgrows century-old frame church

New church a big event in history of tiny Mead parish

At 11 a.m. on January 1, Guardian Angels Parish in Mead dedicated it’s new parish center, which includes a beautiful church. The event’s date and time honored the first Mass held in the original white frame church for 25 Catholic families over a century ago on Jan. 1, 1911.

Now boasting 270-families, the parish that serves Berthoud and Mead along the Interstate 25 corridor in northern Colorado experiencing a housing boom, simply outgrew its picturesque, steepled church.

“The little church only held 99 people, so we were holding four Masses on the weekend and they were still standing-room only,” Father Alan Hartway, CPPS, told the Denver Catholic.

An exterior shot of the new Guardian Angels Parish Center, which was dedicated Jan. 1 with a special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. (All photos by Jason Weinrich | Denver Catholic)

The handsome new 12,000-square-foot brick Romanesque facility, which is located on the same 7-and-a-quarter-acres site the tiny old church sits on at 109 S. Third St., also includes a dining hall that doubles as overflow seating for the new church, a kitchen, a meeting room and offices.

Parishioner Kerry Sewczak said that when she attended the first Mass in the new 250-seat church, which took place on Christmas Eve 2017, she was astonished.

“It’s amazing, especially the reredos (altarpiece),” she told the Denver Catholic. “It was always referred to as a parish center, so it didn’t occur to me that it was a church. I think a lot of people were surprised that it really does look like a church!”

“The architecture of the new church professes our faith life,” said Sewczak’s husband Jim, who was on the design committee. “Father put that vision in front of us.”

“Church architecture is supposed to tell the story of the Gospel,” explained Father Hartway, a Missionaries of the Precious Blood priest. “So when you come into our church, the story doesn’t end with the crucifix on the wall, there’s the Resurrection after that. Our architecture tells the whole story.”

The Knights of Colombus process into the new church as the dedication ceremony begins. The architecture of the church is meant to embody the Christian journey from baptism to Heaven. (All photos by Jason Weinrich | Denver Catholic)

Starting with a bent axis entry, which forces a worshiper to turn their whole body to enter the building, echoing the spiritual practice of conforming oneself to Christ and his will; to the baptismal font inside the church door, reminding one of their new life in Christ; to the crucifix hanging above the altar, depicting Christ’s sacrifice; to the marble altarpiece, representing the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem, located behind the altar for the Eucharistic banquet, and ending with the stained-glass window of the Lamb of God above the altarpiece, the church embodies the Christian journey from baptism to heaven.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the main celebrant of the dedication Mass, during which he blessed the church and its contents, including the altar, the cross and the Stations of the Cross.

“Bless this altar built in the house of the Church that it may ever be reserved for the sacrifice of Christ and stand forever as the Lord’s table where your people will find nourishment and strength,” the archbishop prayed as relics were deposited in the altar and before anointing and censing it.

Noting that the day was the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the archbishop exhorted the faithful to turn to her.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila blesses the altar of the new parish center. (All photos by Jason Weinrich | Denver Catholic)

“Mary intercedes for us that we may come to know her Son,” the archbishop said. “Her last words in the Gospel are, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’”

The archbishop thanked all those responsible for the new facility and Father Hartway for his perseverance in guiding the project. In expressing his own gratitude, Father Hartway gave special thanks to the parishioners and parish staff as well as the architects, Bruce Larson and Peter Incitti, and the builder, Krische Construction.

The $4.5 million project is funded by a parish capital campaign, the pastor said.

“(It) came in on time … and pennies under budget,” Father Hartway said, drawing laughter.

The new church/parish center and related landscaping efforts—a Meditation Park open to the public featuring a new bronze Guardian Angel near an older bronze symbolizing Spring, which sit next to the original church located at the corner of the busiest intersection in Mead—aim to both serve the faithful and to aid evangelization, the pastor said.

“The Guardian Angel statue, because angels are so appealing to people, is a good entry to evangelization,” Father Hartway told the Denver Catholic. “That’s why we located it where we did. She’ll be able to invite people to come here to rest and to feel welcoming hospitality.

“Events can still be held in our old church,” he said, adding that the parish plans to restore and maintain the beloved, carpenter Gothic church. “Eventually, we may turn it into an adoration chapel.”

In the Christmas bulletin, Father Hartway expressed the joy the latest improvements mean for the life of the parish.

“Occupying our new parish center is arguably the second biggest event in the history of the parish, the first being the first little church,” he wrote. “Look how far we’ve come and imagine how far we’re going.”


  • In 1910 Catholic families bought the old Mount Zion United Brethren Church and dragged it a mile down Weld County Road to its present location, where it was renamed Guardian Angels Catholic Church.
  • Relics placed in the altar of the new church are from St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born former slave who became a Canossian religious sister in Italy, and St. Gaspar del Bufalo, an Italian priest and founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood order.
  • The face of the new Guardian Angel bronze was posed by a child of the parish.
  • The new Romanesque marble reredos is flanked by two 5-foot trumpeting angels. It dates to 1881 and is from the now-closed and demolished Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Philadelphia.
  • The Stations of the Cross, the statue of Mary in the center of the reredos, and the corpus on the crucifix, are hand-carved olive wood from Bethlehem and were created by artisans of Bethlehem Arts.