St. Luke's - Westcliffe, Colorado
By Elizabeth Kettle - completely reworked and edited by Connie Percival
A church is a living thing the sum total of all the collected reverence and bickering, faith and foolishness, humility and human pride of all the generations that enter its doors.
An abandoned church is the most pitiful of the remnants that humans cast aside on their tramp through civilization. And be it a crumbling temple high above the Nile or a splintered clapboard pointing a barren belfry to the Colorado skies, it is always a mute and haunting reminder that once men worshipped there and tuned their fearful hearts to God.
For God builds churches in the hearts of men and men, in turn, labor with their hands and minds and fortunes to raise a church to God an outward, tangible symbol of the love and awe they can only partially express for their Creator.
Into the mortar and stone and board they pour the heritage of their fathers and the hope for their children. To the finished home of God they bring their greatest joy and deepest sorrow to be testimony to their faith.
"There were giants in the earth in those days" and so there were the Bishops, Talbot, Randall, Spalding; the priests who followed (and sometimes led) the way, Kehler, Byrne, Hoge.
The Rev. C. Montgomery Hoge came from Texas to southern Colorado territory in the 1870's to minister to "several hundred persons from England" who had settled in the awesomely beautiful Wet Mountain Valley. High above the p1ains, hidden to the east by the "Sierra Mojadas" (Wet Mountains), bound to the west by the mighty Sangre de Cristos, the valley was an iso1ated haven for those hardy farmers and stockmen. A little mission, St. Thomas', was started at Ula, with meetings in homes or the schoo1 house before finding rest in a permanent building in 1879.
In 1873 "Parson" Hoge found his vistas suddenly enlarged. The great mining rush hit the peaceful valley and the race for gold and glory was on. Thousands of fortune hunters scrambled up Hard- scrabble and Grape Creek Canyons to pour over the Rosita hills in the Wet Mountains. They gutted the gold and silver from the hillsides and from each other and the tent camps became towns... Rosita, Querida, Dora City, Bassickville. And in 1876 the Rev. Mr. Hoge founded a church, St. Matthew's, Rosita.
It was, as described by the local newspaper, "a handsome frame building, painted, ornamented and with a good organ". It was consecrated by Bishop Spalding May 6, 1877.
The Rev. Mr. Hoge was a man for his time. He was a robust, plainspoken giant of a man without pretension or illusion. He conducted his services in one of the roaringest of the roaring mining camps of the west. Legend has it that he was not above strapping a hand gun over his clerica1s and pulling his congregational members out of the "dens of iniquity" that lined the streets of the town.
In 1877, his Church established and town thriving, "Parson" Hoge followed the gold seekers over the Sangre de Cristos, across the San Luis Valley to the legendary San Juans, there to establish St. John's Church, Ouray, and St. Mark's at Durango.
Mr. J. R. Edwards finished Rosita on June 29, 1878. The destruction of a mining town was simple. He accomplished it with one stroke of a pick, breaking off a piece of rock from a cliff looming above him. The rock was horn silver and so was the cliff and Rosita was dead. And Silver Cliff was very much alive.
Lying over the hump of hills west of Rosita on the edge of the Valley itself, Silver Cliff took off in a frenzied whirl that would see it become the third largest city in the state and heavily promoted as the logical site for the state capitol.
Much of St. Matthew's went to Silver Cliff. Not only congregational members, but even the very boards and fixtures of the Church itself, to be relocated in the upstart town and renamed St. Luke's, Silver Cliff.
In March of 1879 the new Church had a new frontier priest, the Rev. A. D. Drummond. He was succeeded in 1880 by the Rev. W. W. Estabrooke who saw St. Luke's canonically organized a parish church on September 27, 1881. He reported to the Convention fifty-seven in Sunday School, thirty families, one hundred fifty souls and forty communicants. In that year, too, fourteen were presented for confirmation.
Dr. Estabrooke was succeeded in May of 1881 by the Rev. Samuel Gaynor of Mason City, Iowa.
The Rev. Mr. Gaynor cared for his bustling St. Luke's, diminishing St. Matthew's and staid old St. Thomas' at Ula until 1883 when he, in turn, was succeeded by the Rev. Francis Byrne.
This was another of the giants. A slender, spark- ling bit of a man, silver hair framing a luminous face, he stands as one of the great, dedicated missionary priests. Born in 1807 in County Carlow, Ireland, of Scots parents he was educated in a church school near Dublin. He lived later as a lay missionary at Plymouth and other towns of England's west country. In 1834 he went to Jamaica spending twenty years in mission service there before moving on to America.
Bishop Randall, who persuaded Father Byrne to join the cause in Colorado, called him his "army of one" and so he was.
He went first to Christ Church, Nevadaville, consecrated in 1867. In 1875 he was in Fort Collins and saw the building of St. Luke's Church there. In 1883 he came to the Valley. The slender, frail- appearing little priest apparently knew everyone of his lost or slightly blackened sheep for he records services in Ula, Rosita, Silver Cliff, Westcliffe, Hungry Gulch (in a boarding house), Bassickville and Querida.
He stayed until 1886 and is remembered still with high affection by some who were only small children when he left the Valley to found a new church at Sedalia. He served in Colorado until his death in 1904, a most beloved frontier priest.
The keening whistle of a locomotive did to Silver Cliff what J. R. Edwards' pick had done to Rosita. Not so swiftly, but just as surely.
Dr. William Bell had come to the Valley in the early '70's looking for a rail pass over the Sangre de Cristos for General Palmer's Denver & Rio Grande. He found no route, but did find a home and returned to start a ranch some two miles west of Silver Cliff. He platted a town there, which he named for his English birthplace, Westcliffe-by-the- sea.
When the D&RG finally managed to force a bed up the torturous grade of Grape Creek Canyon from Canon City, Dr. Bell was waiting with a terminous right at his doorstep. Westcliffe became a fact.
The first train made it into the Valley on May 11, 1881, to serve the mines and ranches and the creeping exodus began. Houses, businesses, families gradually moved down the grade from Silver Cliff. The road washed out in 1882, isolating the Valley once again and stopping the rich shipments from the mines for six weeks. Then a raging fire deep in the heart of the Bull Domingo closed that great producer. In 1885 the wrangling of lawyers closed the mighty Bassick and finally the moment of truth came with the depression of 1889-1890 that sent a nation sliding towards poverty. The miners drifted away, with no fanfare or hoopla to mark their passing and unpaid bills scattered behind.
The tough German and English homesteaders stayed to ride it through, as they still do, providing the Valley with the only sure, stable economy it has ever known.
The churches declined too. In 1886 the Rev. William Jones replaced Father Byrne; first as deacon under Canon Missioner Henry Forrester, then as priest in charge of the three missions at Ula, Rosita and Silver Cliff.
In 1888 the Bishop concluded it was no longer possible to maintain a priest in the Valley. The missions came under the care' of the Rev. Stephen Garrett, rector of Christ Church, Canon City. This busy priest also served the church at Florence and missions throughout the coal camps of the area.
The railroad closed its operations to the mines in 1889 and in 1894 the windows of St. Luke's, Silver Cliff, were boarded up.
But the Church lived still in the, hearts of the few who were left for in that same year of 1894 the Bishop reported to the Diocesan Convention that "Rev. Edward R. Newton (Holy Trinity, St. James, Pueblo) spent a month's vacation at Silver Cliff followed by a like vacation spent in the same place by the rector of Ascension Miss1on (the Rev. Reginald Shields Radcliffe) in July and August which occasioned a wonderful revival of interest in that Parish, or rather mission, vacant several years because of the removal of most of the people. A class of thirteen was confirmed at my summer visitation. There were fifty-two baptisms alone that summer in Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. The Rev. Mr. Newton was engaged for one Sunday a month at $30 a visit. A tower was built to the church in front, forming a vestibule, and the old bell, that had made a visit to Canon City and returned, was duly hung in its place. The congregations have been good. Arrangements are in the making to secure a clergyman who may in connection with Silver Cliff, work up a mission at Florence where work ought now to be prosecuted."
And so they came. The Rev. E. W. Sibbold in 1895, the Rev. Harry Arthur Handel in 1896. He worked, long and hard, until Christmas of 1897. In May, 1898, the Rev. J. 0. Miller worked for only ten months. In 1899 this notice appeared, "We have among the vacant churches, Silver Cliff. We can accept none but men of high character and efficiency. The men we want will need no missionary stipend, except possibly a little aid in getting settled. They will soon rally the people to their support."
The records grow sparse as first one, then another visiting priest filled the gap for the faithful few scattered about the broad valley. The Rev. Mr. Radcliffe worked with great dedication listing in 1900 services at Westcliffe, Querida, the Willows (services held behind the schoolhouse as the door was locked), Silver Cliff and at the "Kettle Settlement".
Obviously this august gentleman found time for more than work in his visits to the high country. There is an oft-told story in the Kettle family of a famous footrace run down the main road between Silver Cliff and Westcliffe between the obliging priest and one William Kettle, lay delegate and speedster... and grandfather to the present warden.
There were others who may never have accepted racing challenges but who nonetheless gave long hours of hard travel and service in keeping the spirit alive. Archdeacon Thomas Schofield was perhaps the last of the giants. He came for years, from 1905 through 1916 to conduct the services, bury the dead, console the sick and the grieving, and marry the hopeful. On horseback, by buggy, later hiring the first chugging autos to reach the remnants of once-flourishing congregations scattered through the hills. He it was who joined the tremendous effort to see St. Luke's moved from nearly abandoned Silver Cliff to more prosperous Westcliffe.
In 1914 the Church was moved, complete, it is reported, with one Silver Cliff drunk who rode all the way down in sleepy splendor.
It was a community effort with folk of all faiths joining in. The women as always did more than their share with over $300 raised by the Guild to defray the cost of moving, painting and reshingling.
Another $300 was donated by local people. Help came, too, from the Canon City parish with the gift of a fine altar. The town of Silver Cliff wasn't quite as generous. It laid claim to the bell long used by St. Luke's and refused to relinquish it for less than $50. Archdeacon Schofield writes that in 1916 he had $5 of the necessary $50.
This, apparently, was a man who never rested. In 1896 it was Archdeacon Schofield who rebuilt the church in roaring Cripple Creek after the savage fire, which burned it and most of the town. In 1909, far across the mountains at Saguache, he pro- mated the building of the Mission of the Incarnation. In 1913 he was high on the plains east of Denver founding Ascension Mission at Byers. And between he still found time to serve St. Luke's, Silver Cliff and Westcliffe and how many others?
He left in 1916 and the little Church in the lofty valley, resting contentedly in its new home was served by many. In 1924, a Canadian, the Rev. Malcom Nelson Twiss, came for two years. Then, from 1926 until 1953 the records show a long, long list of "served froms", the names of the individuals swallowed up in general headings of official records.
Some live vibrantly in the hearts and memories of their parishioners. In the 1920's there was the Rev. A. W. Burroughs, a gentle, elderly man who lived alone in the old church kitchen. He loved the mountains, loved to hike and climb the great swells of the Sangre de Cristos, going deep into the hidden places. And one fine summer morning he set out into the timber to the Lake of the Clouds country and never returned. The search party found the remnants of a lunch and months later a local sheepherder, bringing his flock down from timberline, found a black clerical hat. The Rev. Mr. Burroughs remains with his mountains.
There are others of more recent memory. The Rev. George Peek who served from Salida. A dedicated, brilliant man, he is loved still as a great teacher and spiritual leader who did much to revive the sagging spirits of the little mission and brought in many new, dedicated members.
In 1953 again St. Luke's had a resident priest. The Rev. Richard C. Willars, "Father Dick". Teacher, counselor, musician; a freewheeling, hard-working young priest whose limitless enthusiasm drew the community to him like a black-garbed pied piper of the spirit. Building on the work so ably started by Father Peek, he came close to putting the little mission back on parish status once again.
Father Dick was followed in 1957 until 1961 by the Rev. John W. Zulch, still remembered as giving some of the finest sermons ever preached in Westcliffe. Two years, then, without a priest in residence until 1963 when the Rev. George B. Oakes came to stay until 1965. He in turn was followed by the Rev. Edward Rouffy, "Father Ed".
He was replaced in 1985 by the Rev. Bill Willson, a retired Navy Chaplain, who took a congregation struggling for its survival and put it on its feet again. Our most recent Vicar, the Rev. Michael Percival, served from July 2002 until September 2006. Under his leadership, both the size of the congregation and budget doubled. We're grateful to God for blessings both in our past and today, and we look forward to our future with faith and confidence.
In October of 2007, The Rev. Kathryn Boeschenstein assumed the office of vicar at St. Luke's. She left her position in August of 2012 as available funds to fund her position ran out.
Men, busy in the day-to-day routine of their lives, rarely conceive that what they do ts caught into the grand threads of all life. It is not until later, looking back through the keyholes of time that they can see that their work has added to the sum of progress, however small.
The early homesteaders who brought their faith from England to the splendid high country of Colorado; the riotous miners whose women asked for a home and a church in the camps of the Rosita hills; the tireless Bishops and dedicated priests who saw in a raw country a chance to glorify God in the hearts of men; all these added to the history of Christ's kingdom.
The size of a church is no matter; it is the size of the love and faith that sustains it that makes it good. No cathedral, no giant parish has ever been served with more love and sacrifice and devotion than tiny St. Luke's.
May it so endure.
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Photos: Rock Canda