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: The shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.