Part-timers, world travelers influence mountain parish life

Moira Cullings

As the winter season winds down in Colorado’s mountain towns, Catholic churches deep in the Rockies will look a little different during weekend Masses.

This time period, known by locals as “shoulder season,” is quiet but brief. It slows down life at Catholic parishes and local communities — particularly in two popular Colorado destinations.

Breckenridge, home of one of the most-visited ski resorts in the country, averages around 1.6 million annual visits. Just 136 miles away, Aspen’s year-round population is around 6,600, while its average daily population jumps to more than 20,000.

The Denver Catholic spoke with two women — one from each town — about their experiences as full-time parishioners at churches that receive a steady flow of visitors from all over the world.

From part time to permanent

In 2006, Judy Dunn began spending a month in Aspen, where she frequently attended St. Mary Catholic Church during those visits.

“Then in 2011, I bought a place here in town with the full intention that I was just going to spend the winters here,” said Dunn.

But she was captivated by the St. Mary community and had become deeply involved in what the parish had to offer.

“The winter wasn’t long enough,” said Dunn. “A lot of people will say, ‘Come for the winter, stay for the summer.’

“I came for the winter and stayed for St. Mary’s.”

Dunn became a full-time Aspen resident after becoming more and more invested in the parish she had grown to love.

“I became a lector and went to Bible study,” she said. “As time went on, I got involved with the building committee and fundraising for the parish.”

Dunn eventually became the Director of Aspen Catholic, an organization that brings in speakers from around the country a few times a year for the Aspen community and out-of-town visitors to enjoy.

“I better become a resident,” Dunn thought, “because I’m here all the time.”

And so she did.

Now a full-time parishioner, Dunn sees the beauty of parish life in a town like Aspen.

“I had never been in a place where you do have so many visitors and there are so many second homeowners that really are very engaged and involved in this parish,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Dunn meets visitors at the church who traveled from South America, Australia, Chicago and New York. She recently met someone at church from Hawaii.

“We’ll have visitors that, while they’re here, will come to daily Mass every morning,” she said. “That’s very special.

“I made friends with a couple from Brazil,” she added. “They were here for two weeks and did not miss a daily Mass. They’d come dressed to go skiing, and then they’d be off and do their thing.

“I think it’s good for our local community to see the devotion and devout Catholics from across the country.”

But Dunn also appreciates the down time during those few months out of the year when things are much quieter.

“As much as I love the busy time, shoulder season is also very nice, very quiet and very peaceful,” she said. “It’s a nice balance.”

Dunn’s faith has not only been impacted by the visitors, but also by her fellow parishioners.

“I think it’s a very warm community,” she said. “There’s a lot of things going on in the parish to give people an opportunity to get involved.”

The beauty of Aspen doesn’t hurt, either.

“When you go up on that mountain and look out, you think, ‘Wow. This is not manmade. This didn’t just happen,’” she said.

“You have to look out at this and feel very spiritual and very blessed to be able to see something like this every day.”

Part-timers fills the pews

It didn’t take long for Suzanne Anderson to feel like she belonged in the Catholic community when she moved to Breckenridge around four years ago.

A fellow full-time parishioner named Barbara made sure she was embraced at St. Mary Catholic Church.

“When I would come into church at St. Mary’s, she would always welcome me,” said Anderson. “Because she was a regular parishioner, she had a big influence on helping me feel at home.”

That hospitality is a staple of the Breckenridge parish, where, during busy seasons, the bulk of those in the pews are from out of town.

“I would say of all the churches I’ve belonged to, this parish is definitely one of the most heartfelt in their love for their Catholic faith and in their appreciation of our priests,” said Anderson.

It’s also the only parish Anderson has belonged to that’s profoundly influenced by visitors.

A few times at Mass, she’s looked around as the priest asks those in the pews, “How many of you are here from out of town? How many of you are visitors?”

The vast majority of those in attendance raise their hands.

After that, the priests “always say thank you for taking time out of your holiday, your weekend, to come to church,” said Anderson.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to attend church on a Saturday evening, and it’s full. And it’s full because of these visitors,” she added. “It makes you feel like Catholic people really care about coming to church.

“They could be on the slopes, they could be skiing, they could be hiking. On a Saturday night at five o’clock, they could be at a restaurant. Instead, they’re here sharing Mass with us,” she said. “I love that.”

Because the full-time parishioners at St. Mary are so few, it makes the community even closer.

“The advantage is you really get to know your little circle of regulars,” said Anderson.

And those who are there full time are eager to be involved in what St. Mary offers, often taking part in the parish’s Bible study, adoration and even daily Mass.

Anderson is inspired by the faith she’s found at the small mountain parish.

“I feel very, very blessed to be part of this parish because of our priests and because of our regulars,” she said. “They’re wonderful people.”

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.