Colorado, Catholic Church in
COLORADO, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
According to the Official Catholic Directory FY 2000 approximately 14 percent of the population of Colorado—about 553,000 of a total population for four million—are Catholics. They are served by 199 parishes, 102 missions, and assorted pastoral centers distributed into three dioceses: the archdiocese of Denver, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs.
Early History. Colorado became a territory of the United States in 1861 and a state in 1876, but its Catholic history began much earlier. Spanish explorers and missionaries traversed the southern and western part of the state in the 16th century. In the 17th century French fur traders penetrated to the mountain areas, and France claimed the land east of the mountains. This section was transferred to the U.S. by the Louisiana Purchase (1803). In 1821 the western part of Colorado became Mexican territory. This section was ceded to the U.S. in 1848. The gold rush of 1859 brought thousands of prospectors to the area. Congress established the Colorado territory in 1861. The steady growth of population and the establishment of towns to serve the mining region, as well as the building of railroads and the settlement of farming communities, led to the admittance of Colorado to the Union in 1876.
Spanish Franciscans established missions in the southern and western part of the state in the 18th century. When Mexican rule superseded Spanish, the Franciscans were replaced by Mexican diocesan clergy. After the acquisition of the territory by the U.S., the southern Colorado missions were served by priests from New Mexico. The area north of the Arkansas River and east of the mountains was included in the Vicariate Apostolic of Kansas.
Hispanic villagers from Northern New Mexico moved into the San Luis Valley in 1851. They established
settlements at San Luis de la Culebra, the oldest permanent community in Colorado, in 1851; San Pedro was founded in 1852, San Acacio in 1853, and Conejos in 1854. Priests from Abiquiu, New Mexico, celebrated Mass regularly in the Conejos Valley until Bishop JohnB. Lamy of Santa Fe established Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Conejos in 1857. A secular priest, Father Montaño, served as pastor until 1860, when Father Jose Miguel Vigil succeeded him. Father Miguel Rolly served as pastor from 1866 until December 1871, when he was replaced by Father Salvador Personé, S. J.
Personé's pastoral care included some 3000 parishioners, scattered among 25 settlements. He traveled from village to village, including, Pinos, which featured a chapel, and Rincones, which only had a small altar, offering Mass, hearing confessions, and celebrating first communions. Father Alejandro Leone, S.J., and Brother Prisco Caso, S.J., arrived in the San Luis Valley in February 1872, where they took up the itinerant mantle from Personé, traveling great distances to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments.
Growth. The Colorado Gold Rush of the mid-19th century sparked population growth and led to the establishment of a Catholic diocese in Colorado. After prospectors discovered gold in the Rocky Mountains near
Denver in July 1858, miners flooded into the region. Since the area north of the Arkansas River and east of the mountains was included in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, it fell within the purview of John B. Miége, vicar apostolic of Indian Territory. In May 1860, Miége journeyed from his headquarters at Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, to the Colorado goldfields. His purpose was to investigate the situation in the goldfields and to build a church for the many Catholics who had journeyed to the central Rockies, and he was angered by what he saw as the invasion of Native American lands by greedy whites. Miége established a parish and promised to send a priest to the Catholics who worked the goldfields around Denver. Finding that he was unable to spare a priest for the new parish in Denver, Miége convinced the Holy See to transfer responsibility for Colorado to the Diocese of Santa Fe.
To fill the Denver post, in October 1860 Bishop Lamy sent his close friend Joseph P. machebeuf (1812–1889), accompanied by a young French priest, Jean Raverdy (1831–1889). Machebeuf had served as a missionary on American frontiers for more than 20 years, but Raverdy was only recently ordained. In Denver, the duo found an incomplete church building and a parish discouraged by their long wait for a priest. Ten Catholic families greeted the priests, though more than 200, including non-Catholics, attended Sunday Mass on a regular basis. In early 1861, Machebeuf struck out in search of Catholics in the goldfields, leaving Raverdy to offer Masses and to learn English. Machebeuf's buggy served as a rectory and chapel on wheels. On his tour, Machebeuf established parishes at Arapahoe City, Golden, and Central City and visited the principal mining towns.
The Central City parish was the largest of the goldfield congregations, with some 200 parishioners. The parish shared worship space with other Christian groups. After several months, Machebeuf determined that Central City parishioners were wealthy enough to build their own church. The parishioners, however, were not as quick to part with their money as the priest had hoped. When pledges did not come rolling in, Machebeuf locked parishioners in the shared city church one Sunday, and would not unlock the doors until he was satisfied with the level of pledges. The tactic worked and Central City soon boasted a new Catholic church building. Another of Machebeuf's innovative techniques concerned farming. During his years in New Mexico, he learned how to farm lands that received little rainfall. He transferred this knowledge to the Colorado soil, irrigating some of the land he purchased for the Church and grew vegetables and grain.
A Colorado Diocese. Staffing problems continued to plague the church in Colorado. Machebeuf and Raverdy functioned without much assistance, relying on Bishop Lamy and his successor, Bishop Jean B. Salpointe, to send priests as best they could. In 1868, when the Holy See responded positively to his request that Colorado be separated from the Diocese of Santa Fe and formed into a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction, Machebeuf was appointed vicar apostolic of Colorado. Before his ordination as a bishop, Machebeuf made a tour of the East Coast and upper Midwest, hoping to raise funds for the purchase of land and to acquire new priests for his vicariate. He met with little success. On his return, however, Coloradans feted their new bishop with a parade and reception. A year later, Machebeuf made a European tour with the same purposes in mind. He returned from Europe with five new priests, only one of them English-speaking, and a loan to cover the vicariate's debts. The English-speaking priest was assigned to the Denver parish, while the others were sent to the Hispanic parishes in southern Colorado's San Luis and Arkansas valleys. By 1870, Catholic churches in Colorado could seat 8,575 parishioners in 14 parishes. Catholics by far outnumbered other Christians. Much of the demographic growth in the region resulted from the migration of some 8,000 New Mexicans during the 1860s, most of whom were Catholics. By 1890, more than half of the Christians in Colorado (47,111 of 86,837) were Catholics.
The arrival of Jesuits in 1871 greatly alleviated Machebeuf's personnel problems. They took over the southern Colorado parishes, freeing up Machebeuf's recruits to minister in Denver and the surrounding mining areas. Machebeuf and his small retinue of priests even managed to build three Catholic schools by 1870. While rival Protestants saw these Catholic schools as a tool for Catholic conversions, Catholics viewed them as vital for keeping the flock intact. St. Mary's Academy for girls opened in 1863 in Denver. With daughters of the territory's most prestigious families in attendance, Protestant as well as Catholic, the school was an immediate success. Catholics also opened a high school for boys in the 1860s in Denver. The Sisters of Charity from Cincinnati, Ohio, under the leadership of the famous Sister Blandina Segale, built and staffed a Catholic school in Trinidad, St. Joseph's Academy. The Sisters also taught at a public school in Trinidad, until the school board requested that they no longer wear their habits in the classroom. The sisters resigned and established a parish school free of government restrictions.
The vicariate apostolic became the Diocese of Denver in 1887, with Machebeuf serving as the first ordinary and Bishop Nicholas Chrysostom Matz, his coadjutor. Matz, born in Munster, Lorraine, had come to Colorado shortly after his ordination in 1874. Bishop Matz succeeded Machebeuf upon his death in July 1889 and served as diocesan bishop for 28 years (1889–1917). Matz oversaw the diocese's first synod in 1890, the construction of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, and the establishment of St. Thomas Seminary, under the direction of the Vincentian Fathers, in 1908. In 1912, St. Frances Cabrini founded an orphanage on a Rocky Mountain peak near Denver. The state's fluctuating mining-based economy caused financial hardships for the diocese during the Matz era, as did increased anti-Catholicism and conflicts among German and Irish Catholics.
Bishop John Henry Tihen who had been bishop of Lincoln was transferred to Denver when Matz died in 1917. Tihen also dealt with growing anti-Catholicism, led by the Ku Klux Klan. Increased diocesan support for the Denver Catholic Register helped counter the anti-Catholic sentiment. As with his successors, Tihen focused on education, particularly the enlargement of St. Thomas Seminary and the addition of a college for women, Loretto Heights Academy, in 1918. The school, directed by the Sisters of Loretto, became Loretto Heights College and in 1994 became Teikyo Loretto Heights, losing its Roman Catholic affiliation. Three new hospitals, an orphanage, and a home for the elderly were also built under his leadership, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1921. When age and illness prompted Tihen to resign in 1931 Urban J. Vehr replaced him. Vehr ably guided the diocese for the next 36 years, the first 10 years as bishop and, after Denver was made a metropolitan see, as archbishop (1942–1967). He was succeeded by the Most Reverends James V. Casey (1967–1986), formerly the auxiliary bishop in Lincoln, J. Francis Stafford (1986–1996), formerly auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, and Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap. (1997–) who had been bishop of Rapid City. Archbishop Stafford resigned the see when Pope John Paul II appointed him President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome, August 1996.
At the time that Denver was designated an archdiocese, the diocese of Pueblo was formed with the Most Reverend Joseph Clement Willging as its first bishop (1941–1959). The new diocese included some of the oldest Catholic settlements in the state (San Luis, 1851; and Conejos, 1858). The diocese of Pueblo boasted an impressive
increase in the number of Catholic during the years of Bishop Willging and his successor, Charles A. Buswell (1959–1979). Upon Bishop Buswel's retirement, he was succeeded by Arthur N. Tafoya (1980–). Continued growth of Colorado's Catholic population led in 1984 to the creation of a third diocese in the state with the see city in Colorado Springs with Bishop Richard C. Hanifen as the first bishop. At the time of his appointment Bishop Hanifen was auxiliary bishop in Denver.
Bibliography: a. c. cochran, Miners, Merchants, and Missionaries: The Roles of Missionaries and Pioneer Churches in the Colorado Gold Rush and Its Aftermath, 1858–1870. (Metuchen, N.J. and London: American Theological Library Association, 1980). j. m. espinosa, trans. and ed., "The Opening of the First Jesuit Mission in Colorado: Conejos Parish," Mid-America 18(1936), 272–75. h. r. lamar, ed. "Colorado" entry. The New Encyclopedia of the American West (New Haven 1998), 241–44. j. b. miÉge, "An Early Episcopal Visitation of Colorado: 1860. Letters of the Rt. Rev. John Baptist Miége, S.J., D.D., annotated by Rev. w. j. howlett, ed. t. f. o'connor, Mid-America 18 (1936) 266–71. d. scott, "Go Tell It in the Rockies: Denver's Vibrant Catholicism," Crisis: Politics, Culture, and the Church 19:6 (June 2001), 12–18.
[e. m. goodrow/
d. s. mcdonald]