St. Stephen Protomartyr (1885)

  • "For hundreds of years the Ute Indians availed themselves of the curative powers of the hot springs," Daniel J. O'Connell wrote in his brief 1935 history of St. Stephen's. "These healing waters that come gushing from the limestone cliffs at an average temperature of 127 degrees [demonstrate that] God, in his mercy, placed these springs here on earth in order to benefit the sick and the lame; and as an earthly sign that He is ever present."

    The salubrious hot springs at the junction of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers soon attracted white settlers, too. Edward T. Downey, pastor of St. Mary's in Aspen, celebrated the first Mass in 1879, in a tent of some troopers intent on driving the Utes from the mountains and hot springs they had known for centuries.

    A few years after settlement began, Glenwood Springs was selected as the seat of Garfield County and formally incorporated as a town in 1885. Father Downey established St. Stephen's that year, saying the first Mass on April 14 in the home of Mrs. James Lynch. After the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in 1887, the priest and his small flock built a chapel, which Father Downey named for his home church in New York. The first Mass celebrated in this modest frame structure on November 14, 1886, attracted 138 churchgoers, including many non-Catholics.

    Daniel P. Scannell, a healthseeker from Boston, became the first resident pastor in 1891. He was the first of many short-term pastors, most of whom were semi-invalids who stayed at the Hotel Colorado and tried to wash away their illness in Glenwood's famous bath, which still puffs itself as "the largest outdoor hot springs in the world." Not until the pastorate (1903-1910) of David T. O'Dwyer was a $3,000 rectory built. Glenwood Springs Catholics helped open St. Joseph Sanatorium and Hotel (1899-1903), whose short life has been attributed to its location in the town's bar and brothel district.

    Joseph P. Carrigan, who had headed St. Patrick parish in Denver until he began feuding with Bishop Matz, came to Glenwood as pastor in 1910. During his twenty-five-year pastorate, Father Carrigan spruced up the church and began a crusade to erect a shrine on Horn Silver Mountain facing the Mount of the Holy Cross. Today's Shrine Pass road between Vail Pass and Red Cliff is a relic of Carrigan's long and ambitious crusade to "make the Mount of the Holy Cross Pilgrimage the greatest annual religious event in the world."

    One long-time St. Stephen's parishioner still remembers Father Carrigan as "a crusty old Irishman who insisted upon taking up the collection himself at Mass, glaring at you until you had put enough in the basket. And he readily uncorked his views on politics and on the chancery in Denver." Father Carrigan, like his predecessors, was kept busy tending numerous missions, including, at various times, Basalt, Carbondale, Cardiff, Craig, Eagle, Gilman, Hayden, Marble, Meeker, Minturn, New Castle, Parachute, Red Cliff, and Rifle.

    In 1935, Clarence E. Kessler took charge of St. Stephen's and began a campaign to build a new church. Lots were purchased in 1938, but construction did not begin until 1941. The eighty-two-by-thirty-two-foot church was designed by Denver architect John K. Monroe in the traditional cruciform with a basement parish hall. This $20,000 church, built of rusticated native red sandstone, was completed within the year. It has a modest Romanesque entry, rose window, and diminuitive buttresses; it seats 250 under an open beam mission-style ceiling. Before his retirement in 1965, Father Kessler bought land for a parish school at 414 South Hyland Park Drive.

    Father Kessler's successors, after fumigating the rectory to get rid of all memories of his pet monkeys, continued his work. In 1981, Matthias J. Blenkush persuaded two hometown girls to return and open St. Stephen School, the only Catholic school to be opened in the archdiocese since the 1960s. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Marie R. Pretti and Ann Stevens were former Catholic school principals in Denver, whose abilities and experience enabled St. Stephen School to prosper at a time when many parochial schools were closing.

    During a 1987 visit, my interview with the pastor, James V. Cuneo, VF, was interrupted by a young transient with a baby. After giving her "Lift Up" coupons good for food, gas, and lodging, Father Cuneo explained that St. Stephen's offers such assistance to as many as twelve indigents a day. "Night and day," he explained, "I give them sandwiches, pop, bananas, and yogurt. For families we give out the `Lift Up' coupons which the charities and churches here have inaugurated." As in the days of the Utes, this hot springs resort attracts all sorts, and St. Stephen's opens its door to one and all.