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: Five Colorado places named after Catholic saints

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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.