Five Colorado places named after Catholic saints

Aaron Lambert

On Aug. 1, Colorado will have made it way over the hill at a ripe 144 years old. Better known as Colorado Day, the day commemorates the founding of our great Centennial State in 1876.

The Catholic Church has a rich history in Colorado, and believe it or not, various regions, geographic landmarks and places in the state are named after Catholic saints. The San Juan Mountain Range, the San Miguel River and the San Luis Valley are but a few examples.

In honor of Colorado Day, here are five places within “Colorful Colorado” that take their namesake from a Catholic saint. You probably already know a couple of them, but the other three are real “diamonds in the rough” that are worth making the trek; in fact, two of them were built and founded before Colorado was even Colorado.

Mother Cabrini Shrine, Golden, CO

 

One of Colorado’s most popular pilgrimage sites, it’s hard not to be enamored by Mother Cabrini Shrine. Originally founded as a girls’ summer camp by St. Frances Cabrini in 1910, the shrine overlooks the I-70 corridor heading into the mountains and is as charming as it is relaxing. In addition to the praying in the chapel, visitors can stay in the old Stone House that was built in 1914 or one of the various retreat houses that have been added over the years. Aside from being a wonderful space to pray, Mother Cabrini Shrine doubles as a sort of natural Stairmaster to get those steps in with the 373-step staircase leading up to the shrine, affectionately known as the Stairway of Prayer.

St. Catherine of Siena Chapel, Allenspark, CO

Photo by Andrew Wright

Better known as the Chapel on the Rock, this functioning Catholic chapel is perhaps one of Colorado’s most iconic landmarks. As the story goes, in the early 20th century, a man by the name of William McPhee owned the land where the chapel stands, known as Camp St. Malo. McPhee was a parishioner of the Cathedral in Denver, and he often allowed the parish to take kids hiking and camping on his property. During one of those trips, several campers saw a meteorite or shooting star that had appeared to hit the earth. They went looking for it and came upon the Rock that now stands as the foundation of St. Catherine of Siena Chapel. Completed in 1936, the chapel’s official namesake is fitting, as both it and St. Catherine of Siena share a common thread of mystical experiences facilitated by the Lord. It has had many visitors over the years, but perhaps none so famous as St. John Paul II who, ever the outdoorsman, just had to make a stop while in Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, CO

 

Photo courtesy of the Abbey of St. Walburga

Located in the picturesque Virginia Dale, a small community just south of the Wyoming border, the Abbey of St. Walburga is a place where the voice of the Lord lives in the mountains, plains and rivers surrounding it. Named for the patroness of the Benedictine nuns, the abbey was founded in 1935 when three sisters from the Abbey of St. Walburg in Eichstätt, Bavaria were sent to a remote farm in what was Boulder. There, they built a strong foundation for the future of the abbey through hard work, poverty and an immovable trust in God’s providence. Today, the Benedictine nuns of Walburga humbly carry out the good works of the Benedictine order and carry on the legacy started nearly a millennium ago in 1035, when the original Walburg abbey in Eichstätt was founded.

San Luis, CO

Photo by Jeremy Elliot

Moving into the southern most regions of the State of Colorado, the Catholic roots of the region become much more evident. The oldest town in Colorado, San Luis, was founded in 1851 on the Feast of St. Louis, and predates the official founding of Colorado as a state by 25 years. The town is located along the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which translates to “Blood of Christ.” One of the main attractions of the small town of just over 600 is a shrine at the town’s local Catholic parish. The Shrine of the Stations of the Cross was built by the parishioners of Sangre de Cristo Parish and the beautiful stations were designed and sculpted by native San Luis sculptor Huberto Maesta.

Capilla de Viejo San Acacio, Costilla County, CO

Photo from Wikicommons

Just to the west of the town of San Luis lies one of Colorado’s oldest gems. The Chapel of Old St. Acacius, or Capilla de Viejo San Acacio as it’s known to the locals, is the oldest non-Native American religious site in Colorado that’s still active today. While the building of the church cannot be dated precisely, it was likely completed sometime in the 1860s. The namesake of the church comes from St. Acacius of Byzantium, a third century martyr. Near the church is the small village of San Acacio, which a local tradition holds got its name after one of the earliest San Luis Valley settlements, originally called Culebra Abajo, was attacked by a band of Ute in 1853. As the Ute attackers approached, the villagers asked for the intercession of St Acacius, a popular saint among their people. The Ute suddenly halted and fled before they reached the town, scared off by a vision of well-armed warriors defending it. In gratitude for this salvation, the village was renamed San Acacio, and the villagers built a mission church in honor of the saint.

COMING UP: At Mother Cabrini Shrine, saint’s spirit lives on 100 years after death

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Driving out of the mountains on I-70, it’s hard not to spot: A statue of Jesus overlooking the corridor, signaling a warm welcome back to the city after a long weekend away.

Mother Cabrini Shrine has become something of a landmark for Coloradans; a silent refuge just outside of the city for the weary, the overburdened and the distracted to come and find a little bit of peace and quiet. What the many who visit may not know, however, is the rich history of the land and its founder — a saint from whom the haven takes its namesake.

In July of 2017 the Shrine marked 100 years since the death of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini with a weekend-long celebration of her life and achievements.

Mother Cabrini Shrine celebrated Mother Cabrini’s birthday with a weekend-long celebration July 15-16. The occasion also commemorated 100 years since her death. (Photo by Nicole Withee | Denver Catholic)

Mother Cabrini was a simple Italian woman who made an impressionable mark on American Catholic spirituality and was responsible for founding 67 different institutions in the U.S., including schools, hospitals and orphanages. Mother Cabrini Shrine can be counted among these, though it didn’t begin as the shrine it is today.

Frances Cabrini was born July 15, 1850, in the small village of S’ant Angelo Lodgiano, Italy, just outside of Milan. The youngest of 13 children, she was born two months premature, and would live her life in a fragile and delicate state of health. Despite her condition, it didn’t stop her from joining a religious order when she was of age.

In 1880, Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The dream for her and her sisters was to go and do missionary work in China, and was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII to gain permission to do so. Much to her surprise, he told her not to go east, but to the west — namely, the United States. Italian immigrants were flooding the country at the time, and the Pope thought her talents would be best utilized serving them instead. He was right.

She arrived to New York City in 1889. It was difficult at first, but she founded an orphanage in what is now West Park, New York, known as Saint Cabrini Home. She eventually found her way to Colorado in 1902, where she would visit several times in the remaining years of her life. She ministered to the poor Italian mining workers and their families in the foothills west of Denver, an area she was particularly fond of.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Wikicommons)

Having already established Queen of Heaven Girls Orphanage in Denver, Mother Cabrini was in need of a summer camp to bring the girls during the summer months. She discovered some property on the east slope of Lookout Mountain, owned by the town of Golden, and negotiated its purchase in 1910, after taking her oath as a U.S. citizen the year prior. Three Sisters of the Sacred Heart lived on and maintained the land, which had a small farming operation.

The land had no known reliable source of water, but as the story goes, in September 1912, Mother Cabrini told some of the thirsty, complaining sisters to lift a certain rock and start digging. The sisters obliged, and uncovered a spring, which has not stopped running to this day. Many pilgrims to Mother Cabrini Shrine believe the water has brought about healing and peace in their lives.

It was also in 1912, during her final visit to Colorado, that she and builder Thomas Eckrom would draw up the plans for what would become the famous Stone House that stands today. Construction began in fall of that year and was finished in 1914. Girls from the orphanage would stay in the house during the summer camp. Also during her last visit, Mother Cabrini took a few sisters and girls from the orphanage to the top of the highest hill on the property and arranged stones in the shape of the Sacred Heart. She dedicated the hill to the Sacred Heart and named it “Mount of the Sacred Heart,” and to this day, those very stones lay arranged just as they were, preserved beneath a glass case for all to see.

Mother Cabrini died on Dec. 22, 1917, in Chicago. The cause for her beatification, and her subsequent canonization into sainthood was opened shortly after her death. She was canonized on July 7, 1946 by Pope Pius XII. A July 4, 1946, article in the Denver Catholic Register chronicled Mother Cabrini’s travels during her life, and concluded that she founded an “average of one house for each of her 67 years of life.”

Established by Mother Cabrini in 1910, Mother Cabrini Shrine is one of Colorado’s most popular retreat spots and attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims annually. (Photo by Nicole Withee | Denver Catholic)

And so, St. Frances Cabrini’s legacy lives on at Mother Cabrini Shrine. Various additions have been made over the years that have turned it into the shrine it is today, all of which likely capture the spirit Mother Cabrini intended for the land when she acquired it. A replica of a grotto at Lourdes was made in 1929 and then rebuilt in 1959, which has become a frequented place of prayer for the faithful of Denver.

In 1954, the statue of Jesus that overlooks I-70 was installed above the heart of stones, and a 373-step staircase leading up to the Mount of the Sacred Heart was also built, which has come to be known as the Stairway of Prayer. In 1970, a convent for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart was completed, which, among other things, provides overnight accommodations for visitors, making Mother Cabrini Shrine a popular spot for retreats, as well.

St. Frances Cabrini may be 100 years gone, but her spirit is very much alive in the streets of Denver, and especially at Mother Cabrini Shrine. If anything, it’s an ever-present reminder of the Christ-like love that this simple woman poured into our great state – a love that made her a saint.

For more information on Mother Cabrini Shrine, visit mothercabrinishrine.org.