Aspen History is uncovered During Church Renovation

By Madeleine Osberger | October 31, 2017


In digging deep to the bones of St. Mary Catholic Church during what is now a $6.9 million remodel and renovation, Aspen history has been recovered.

An original brick wall hidden behind the organ and babies’ cry room may be getting its first unveiling in a century. Its discovery was a welcome surprise, related to the removal of an imposing stairwell in favor of a circular staircase to the new choir loft.

“As we see possibilities, we’re changing,” said the Rev. John Hilton, pastor of the church built in 1892, a structure that is among Aspen’s oldest.

The site was a flurry of activity, and dust, during a walk-through on Monday. Up to 27 crew members may be on site any given day but Sunday, between now and its anticipated May 2018 full completion date.

St. Mary aspires to host Christmas-season services in a temporary, first-floor space, where the old partitions separating classrooms are currently being replaced by modern dividers equipped with the ability to incorporate white boards for teaching.

The major remodel of the 10,000-square-foot church, which will retain its 350-seat capacity, has been a mixed blessing.

Marina Skiles, senior project planner with Charles Cunniffe Architects, said retention of the original ceiling (the sanctuary where Mass is held is located on the second floor) was not possible given the extent of wear and tear to the original trusses. That resulted in a ceiling that bowed and was potentially dangerous.

Visible during this week’s site tour of the construction being completed by Structural Associates of Glenwood Springs were wooden beams that are visibly decaying. Also seen in the bare walls, stripped of their insulation and drywall, were boards with advertisers’ names, monikers Hilton believes are original and indicative of 1890s-era Aspen.

He referred to how few trees are seen in photographs of Aspen from that period of history, and how the church builders might have had to use whatever resources were available at the time, from recycled boards to old-growth timber.

Peeling away an old lathe and plaster layer from the ceiling revealed vivid stencil drawings that Hilton believes are also original to the 19th-century building.

“The Victorians used very bright colors,” he said, sharing photos of some of the drawings on the since-removed plaster. Hilton also said that a thin black film seen on the plaster may have been coal dust.


Hear the bells

Digging deep into the building has been costly, and could add between $200,000 to $300,000 to the overall reconstruction cost, according to Skiles.

“We’ve spent a lot on hidden stuff. We want to make sure there’s money for beautification of the church,” she said.

That could include an altered front porch area that the Historic Preservation Commission will have to review and approve as part of the amendment, Skiles said.

An open, better-lighted reception area and a self-serve coffee bar are among the changes to the St. Mary interior entrance.

Two additional church bells will ring to herald Sunday and holiday services, according to the pastor.

“When you put in three bells, it becomes very joyful,” Hilton said of the more upbeat tones expected. In the Catholic church, bells are so revered that, like babies, they are honored in the ceremony of baptism.

“We’ll have a spring baptism-of-the-bells ceremony,” he said.

A $350,000 fundraising campaign to close the final gap on the renovation project recently received a $100,000 matching grant, according to Hilton.

“So now we are down to $100,000,” he said, noting both recent gains to the coffers and additional, unexpected construction expenses.

When St. Mary closed its doors for construction this summer, it was believed to be the first time in 135 years that Catholic Mass in Aspen was celebrated outside the one-block campus where this church, and the modest St. Stephen’s on the same site before that, had served the community continuously since the 1880s.

Until at least December, Catholic weekend services are held at the Aspen Community Church, 200 E. Bleeker St. Weekdays, Hilton invites parishioners into the rectory for morning mass beginning at 7 a.m.


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