History in Focus: Pioneers of the faith
James Neton/For Craig Press
Catholicism in Northwest Colorado traces its origins to 1776 when Spanish Franciscan priests, Atanasio Domínguez, and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante crossed the White River just east of Rangely on their expedition to California.
However, as the Spanish empire dissolved, so did the fleeting Catholic presence in the region.
Then, in the late 1880s missionary priests sporadically traveled north from Glenwood Springs, tending to small flocks of Catholics in Meeker and Craig. As the region grew, permanent churches were established in Northwest Colorado.
In 1907, Holy Name Catholic Church was established in Steamboat Springs and Father John J. Meyers traveled by horse and buggy to the mission church in Craig to celebrate mass in homes, the old courthouse, and even a few times at the Yost Pool Hall.
At times the energetic and beloved priest found himself in the crosshairs of danger.
In October 1913, South Routt coal mines were in the midst of a tense strike, which was part of a larger pattern of labor unrest in the state and around the nation. After meeting with his parishioners in Oak Creek, many of them miners, Father Meyers presented their concerns to the mine operators, and an amicable solution to the strike was suddenly possible.
But on the night of Nov.19, while walking the dark streets of Oak Creek to the union hall located in the back of a saloon, a half dozen men assaulted Father Meyers leaving him battered and bruised. The mine owners blamed the union. The union blamed company goons. Six men were arrested including the mayor of Oak Creek, C.A. Pankey.
An unequivocal editorial in the Steamboat Pilot of Nov. 26, described the cowardly attack as, “beyond the pale of a civilized community.” Soon, the violence escalated into all-out riots and by January, Company G of the Colorado National Guard was called in to establish order.
Undeterred, Father Meyers continued to spread the faith. In 1919, he led the Craig Catholics in purchasing five lots on the corner of 7th and School Street, directly across the street from Breeze School.
In 1920, a parish was established and a small wood-framed building used by Breeze School as an overflow classroom was purchased, moved across the street and dedicated as St Michael’s Catholic Church.
In 1925, through the energy and guidance of a building committee and Father Francis Brady, plans were made to build a more proper church. By December the new St. Michael’s was finished. Dominating the still treeless skyline of Craig, the twin 56-foot gothic style towers, brick exterior, and ornate interior, was dubbed by a Craig Empire headline as “the finest small church in the West.”
On August 15, 1926, the church was dedicated with masses at 6, 7, 7:30, 8, 8:30, and 10 a.m.. keeping all of the visiting priests very busy! Bishop J. Henry Tihen’s sermon titled Brotherly Love reportedly was “masterful and held the rapt attention of the large congregation.” Afterward, a banquet served by the ladies of the Church was attended by over 300 people.
From church histories, we can glimpse into the life of the parish. Beyond the first communion, wedding, and confirmation ceremonies, there were events galore. The annual Saint Patrick’s Day Ball, street carnivals, and the “Forty Hours of Devotion” leading up to the Feast Day of Saint Michael were just a few of the events over the years.
By the late 1970s, a more spacious church was needed. In April of 1982, Father John McGrath, Sister Mary Ann Flax, and parishioners broke ground, and by 1983 the current St. Michael’s Church was completed.
In Northwest Colorado, the ancient force of Catholic Christianity combined with the American pioneer spirit to build Saint Michael’s Catholic Church. Today, this combination continues to engage and develop the Yampa Valley.
Thanks to Dan Davidson for access to the archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, and Diane King for access to church histories and archives of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Email James Neton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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