ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST (1882)
Longmont, a Boulder County town founded at the junction of St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks in 1871, was named for Long's Peak, soaring in snowcapped splendor on the western horizon. The Chicago-Colorado Colony, an idealistic group of Chicagoans who dreamed of a better life in a rural utopia, purchased the 640-acre Longmont site after a super sales talk from Rocky Mountain News editor William N. Byers. The colony offered settlers of "industry, temperance, and morality" three town lots and outlying farmsteads in exchange for $155 memberships.
Approximately 500 colonists soon transformed Longmont into a model town with a communal irrigation system, tree-lined streets, and attractive homes, schools, and churches. Longmont grew slowly but steadily as an agricultural town, absorbing the nearby town of Burlington, a collection of log cabins begun in 1860.
Irish Catholics came to town in 1873 with the first railroad. Bishop Machebeuf said the first Mass in the railroad section house of Longmont section boss Michael O'Connor. Before persuading priests to come to Longmont, O'Connor and his family had pumped their way to Boulder's Sacred Heart church in a railroad handcar. Priests from Denver and Boulder paid monthly visits to the section house until 1881, when services were moved to a second floor suite of the newly constructed Zweck (now Imperial) Hotel on Main Street.
Lawrence and William Mulligan donated two lots on the east side of Collyer Street between 3rd and 4th avenues, where this small parish of about twenty families, aided by generous contributions from many Longmont non-Catholics, completed a $1,117 twenty-by-forty-foot, frame church. As there were no pews, Michael O'Connor and his family donated chairs, and other parishioners helped complete the humble furnishings. This quaint, front-gable church with plain windows and a huge Celtic cross on top was consecrated by Bishop Machebeuf on June 24, 1882, the feast of St. John the Baptist.
Benedictines from Boulder and the pastor of St. Joseph's in Fort Collins tended the church, staying in a parsonage completed in 1891. Not until the spring of 1902 did Longmont receive a resident pastor, Father Nicholas Seidl, OSB (Order of St. Benedict). Father Seidl and his flock of about thirty families purchased two lots for $1,300 and engaged a Denver architect, Fred W. Paroth, to design and supervise construction of a new church. The old church was sold to Longmont's Norwegian Lutheran congregation for $4,150 to help pay for the new $14,000 Gothic church.
Inside, it was forty-two feet by ninety-six feet; outside, it was dressed handsomely in alternating courses of smooth and rusticated red sandstone rising to a corner steeple height of 100 feet. Bishop Matz blessed the new church on July 22, 1905.
Over the years, parishioners used "Social Teas" and "Sacrifice Sunday Collections" to furnish their new church grandly. In 1910, artists from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, were commissioned to paint a fresco in the vaulted interior, where a large chandelier was hung to illuminate the magnificent artwork. Three elaborate Gothic altars were installed a year later. Parishioners raised $1,000 in 1914, matching a grant from the Carnegie Organ Fund, to install a large pipe organ in the hanging wooden choir loft.
A large, brick, two-story rectory with a wrap-around verandah was completed in 1907 for $2,328 at the corner of 4th Avenue and Collyer Street. The community of Benedictines living there made missionary rounds throughout the area, tending congregations at Erie, Frederick, Lyons, and Mead, where in 1911 they established a new parish, Guardian Angels.
In 1907, St. John's helped give birth--accidentally--to a Franciscan school in Longmont. This episode began in 1906 when Mother Thecla and Sister Celestine of the Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to Colorado hoping to open an academy. Bishop Matz recommended Loveland as a good site. The nuns boarded the train for Loveland, but when the conductor called out the Longmont stop, these German-speaking sisters mistakenly got off. Thomas F. Mahoney, president of the Longmont Chamber of Commerce and a staunch St. John's parishioner, found them stranded, gave each a dollar, and began a conversation. Mahoney persuaded the grateful sisters to stay in Longmont, where he arranged for them to live at the home of David C. Donovan, another prominent Catholic, who presided over the First National Bank of Longmont.
Mahoney, Donovan, and Father Nicholas helped the Franciscan sisters purchase the old Presbyterian Academy, a handsome, four-story brick and stone building erected about 1884 at 6th Avenue and Atwood Street. Mother Thecla and Sister Celestine converted the former Protestant school to a convent and St. Joseph Academy. Sister Ermita opened a kindergarten and arranged for a horse-drawn school bus to bring in children, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for lessons in "music, games, and politeness--but no religion." Tuiton was fifty cents a week. By 1920, St. Joseph's bulged with 110 students, and St. John's parishioners and the sisters bought Cena Sampson's home, a large two-story house on four Atwood Street lots, for $10,350. They converted it to a boarding school and built a bungalow on the grounds for the upper grades. Although the Sampson house burned in 1922, it was replaced quickly, and in September 1926, St. John's constructed a $70,000, two and a half-story, red brick high school on the corner of 4th Avenue and Emery Street, next to the church. Although St. John High School closed in 1929, the grade school survived until 1982. Thomas F. Mahoney, the parishioner who had persuaded the lost nuns to establish a Longmont school, also became a nationally noted champion of Spanish-speaking migrant workers. These poor seasonal workers, exploited by some farmers and the Great Western sugar beet plants of Loveland and other nearby towns, found a friend in Mahoney and comfort in the programs, including an annual fiesta, which he and St. John's began developing during the 1920s.
St. John the Baptist parish was guided by Father Nicholas until 1924, when he was transferred to Canton, Ohio, where he died on December 7, 1926. Various Benedictine priests briefly guided St. John's until 1940, when Father James Mahrer, OSB, began a nineteen-year stint as pastor. In 1958, he supervised construction of a $100,000 convent.
Father Martin Arno, OSB, pastor from 1959-1966, converted the old high school into grade-school classrooms and renovated the old grade school. In 1962, the parish demolished its magnificent old stone church to build a large, modern $375,000 edifice completed for midnight Christmas Mass in 1963. The modern, pyramidical brick church, with its tubular bell tower, seated 760, more than double the size of the old structure. Keith Ames, the architect, was a member of the parish and also designed the new Longmont Municipal Building.
The 1906 frame rectory is now gone; the nuns moved into a brick house at 337 Collyer in 1976 when their convent was converted to the Religious Education Center. The Hart house at 328 Emery was purchased in 1974 and remodeled as the parish Teen House. To provide food, clothing, second-hand goods, and counseling for the needy, St. John's opened Samaritan House in 1971 in an antique cottage at 313 Collyer Street; the cottage was razed in 1978 and replaced by a new building, largely constructed by volunteer parish labor. Rechristened "OUR Center," it now serves hot lunches daily and distributes clothing to the needy as Longmont's ecumenical Outreach United Resource Center.
Fathers Gregory Hudson (1966-1970) and Patrick Noll (1970-1971) were the last Benedictine pastors at St. John the Baptist's. Archdiocesan priests subsequently served as pastors: fathers James Purfield (1971-1972), Thomas Stone (1973-1974), and Walter R. Jaeger (1974-1984). Michael W. Gass and Joseph E. Monahan, co-pastors of St. John's from 1984 to 1987, developed a notable program for elderly, homebound, and handicapped parishioners, commissioning almost 100 of these often neglected and unappreciated people as "Ministers of Praise."
In ceremonies honoring their new role as special parishioners, Father Monahan gave each an olivewood cross from the Holy Land, a prayer book, and a certificate of membership.
James E. Fox, pastor since 1987, has focused on the Hispanic ministry in conjunction with Spirit of Peace parish. Father Fox also focused efforts on social action and the 1989 construction of a multipurpose parish center. Six sisters living in the Franciscan convent not only helped maintain the school, which offers kindergarten through ninth-grade classes, but also are engaged in a wide variety of parish and community ministries. St. John the Baptist parish, whose history is well documented in 1921, 1955, and 1982 booklets, is an old but thriving church in one of Colorado's fastest growing towns.