Whether writing about historic Colorado cemeteries, hotels, mansions or, more recently, churches, Linda Wommack followed a general rule.
“None of my books are about buildings that have been demolished,” she says. “You can always go see them.
Wommack, a Littleton native, says there’s something to be seen at the oldest places of worship in the state. They are the focus of his 2019 book, “The Historic Churches of Colorado.”
Entering it, she says, is “going back in time”.
That’s what she did as she researched the book, covering every corner of the state – from the eastern plains in the north and south, to the mountains in the far west, to the river valleys between the two. Wommack found a common theme in the more than 100 Christian churches listed on the National Register of Historic Properties.
“It all comes back to the community. People come to build community, and they’ve centered it around the church,” Wommack says. “When settling in a new country, one of the first things they did was build a church.”
The earliest surviving church in Colorado is Our Lady of Guadalupe, envisioned by Spanish settlers in the San Luis Valley. Founded in 1854, it was the vision of Father Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, whom Wommack cites as the inspiration for Willa Cather’s novel “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”
Cather wrote: “Among the Spaniards, who had nothing but a mud house and a burro, he could always raise money. If they had anything, they gave.
Generosity and sacrifice could explain many other churches that have stood the test of time in Colorado – and also the test of the elements.
Shortly after its construction, on Thanksgiving Day in 1870, winds blowing over the mountains of Georgetown destroyed Grace Episcopal Church, which was quickly rebuilt, writes Wommack. Later, on the heated church plain at Antelope Springs, near Brush, a minister remarked, “Rabbits here need to find a fence post for shade.”
Persistence has given rise to what Wommack calls “glorious buildings”.
“The pride people have felt in building their church is just amazing,” she says. “Any one of these cities you look at, nine times out of 10, the church stands out more than any other structure.”
In Denver, when completed in 1888, the imposing steeple of Trinity Methodist Church “could be seen for miles,” writes Wommack. In 1912 the competition increased with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its twin spiers soaring almost 200 feet.
Before them, in the capital, was the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. The doors opened in 1879, making way for some of Colorado’s elite, including the “unsinkable” Molly Brown and Horace Tabor, both wealthy from the Leadville mines.
In his poor and dying days, Tabor was known to have found solace in his holy home. As Christopher “Kit” Carson did 30 years before, in 1868. For “comfort and privacy”, writes Wommack, the legendary general’s final resting place was a chapel at Fort Lyon, which is commemorated today.
It’s also the peace Denver’s black community has found at Zion Baptist Church, one of the first black churches west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1865 by 17 pioneers, the congregation meets today in the former Calvary Baptist Church on 24th Avenue and Ogden Street.
Denver also saw Colorado’s first female cabinet minister, writes Wommack. A follower of New Thought theory – developed in the late 19th century by a magnetizer and healer – Nona Lovell Brooks arrived in the city in 1898 and went on to build the first Church of Divine Science in 1922.
The story of the Colorado Churches follows a cast of colorful characters. One of Wommack’s favorites is “snowshoe roamer” John Lewis Dyer. The Methodist traveled to preach at Breckenridge in 1860 “with a shirt in one pocket, a will and hymnbook in the other, bread and beef in a third”, he wrote in his diary . Wommack also recounts the escapades of con man Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, who allegedly raised $600 to help build Creede’s first church in 1892.
Another figure that takes the book into account is Carl Howelsen, the Norwegian famous for his contributions to skiing at Steamboat Springs in the early 1900s. He was also a skilled mason, assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Wommack was baptized in this church. Every time she visits Steamboat today, “it’s always the weekend,” she says. “And on Sundays, I always go to church.”