The following article was originally written in 1992 by former parishioner Barbara Muntyan. It was edited and updated in 2012 by Junior Warden Don Paulson.
St. John’s Episcopal Church is a little jewel set within the confines of the beautiful “Gem of the Rockies,” Ouray, Colorado. Shortly after the founding of the town, the Church was established by Cornish, Welsh, and English miners who had come to the mountains surrounding Ouray in search of gold and silver. The church’s fine stone edifice reflects the skills of the Cornishmen who built the structure. It is said that the beautiful cross and candlesticks on the alter were purchased with “high-grade” ore from the devoted (if somewhat larcenous) miners!
The first white explorers who came into Ouray’s lovely valley arrived in 1875, looking for gold and silver veins. They were prospectors who came over the mountains from the area of Bakers’ Park — today’s town of Silverton — after the discovery of gold there caused a mining rush. Hundreds of hopeful fortune-seekers swarmed into the San Juan Mountains, much to the irritation of the Ute Indians. The San Juans were the “Shining Mountains,” sacred to the Ute, and part of their hunting grounds. It was not until the Utes reluctantly ceded the high country to the white men that prospecting began in earnest.
By 1875, there were many hundreds of prospectors and miners crawling over the San Juan Mountains looking for their fortune. Some eventually found Ouray’s valley and the outcrops of precious metals in the surrounding high peaks. The year following the arrival of the first whites in Ouray’s valley, the town was incorporated on September 13, 1876. It was also the Centennial year for America. By the time of Ouray’s official establishment, there were approximately 400 people resident in the valley.
The town was first named “Uncompahgre City,” but was soon renamed to honor the chief of the Ute Indians in the area. Within a year or two after incorporation, the population had swelled to nearly 1,000 inhabitants. The Episcopal Church in Ouray was established in 1877. Ouray, unlike many other mining camps, was established as a family town. Although it had its share of single men, far from home, it also had an unusually large number of families. This fact accounted for the early establishment of a school, several churches, a library, and other evidence of culture on the mining frontier.
Instead of simple tent structures with false fronts, or mere log cabins, many of Ouray’s early buildings were constructed as more permanent structures. St. John’s, for example, was built as a fine stonework edifice barely two years after the first white man set foot in the valley. The first priest of St. John’s was The Reverend Coffee Montgomery Hoge. Parson Hoge, as the town knew him, wore a six-shooter. He came to Ouray from Rosita, Colorado, another mining community in south-central Colorado, where he had been rector of St. Matthew’s Church. Apparently Parson Hoge had been in poor health in Rosita, and the move to Ouray was believed to offer an opportunity for improvement, as well as a chance to expand the Church’s western missions.
The Ouray Times of July 21, 1877, reported that the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Colorado, “Bishop [John Franklin] Spaulding… dropped [into Ouray] yesterday morning. The bishop, accompanied by The Reverend Converse of Del Norte spent Wednesday and Thursday here, holding services each evening in Blythe’s Hall. It was announced that the Rev. C. M. Hoge, formerly of Rosita, would be here in a couple of weeks and this would be his field of labor…”
Parson Hoge wasted no time in moving his family over the rude trail from the San Luis Valley, probably via Lake City and then Engineer Pass, to Ouray. The Ouray Times of August 18, 1877, announced that “The Rev. C. M. Hoge will hold Episcopal services tomorrow, in the Court House, morning and evening….” It was obvious that Parson Hoge was a man of action, not merely because he wore a six-shooter and cut a notable figure in the sometimes uproarious mining camp. But a mere three months after his arrival, the newspaper reported that Parson Hoge had already purchased a lot for the location of the new Episcopal Church edifice. The Ouray Times of October 6, 1877 recorded that “The Rev. C. M. Hoge has purchased a lot near Captain Cline’s residence [Ouray’s first mayor] on which he proposes to erect a house of worship.”
A man named Claus Oak owned the lot on which the church was to be built. He had acquired the lot on August 1, 1877. A purchase agreement was reached between Oak and Parson Hoge a couple of months later, and the actual title transfer took place on March 4,1878. Thus, a mere eighteen months after the town’s incorporation, the Episcopal Church was a going concern.
One might wonder why the presence of the Episcopal Church was felt so early in Ouray. Surely part of the answer lies in the fact that some of the earliest miners in the San Juan were of English origin — Welsh and Cornishmen — who were skilled at the kind of mining required in this region. Anglicans all, it was natural for them to also import their religion.
The fact that St. John’s looks very much like a Victorian English country church should therefore come as no surprise. The stonework, the rood screen, the altar arrangement, were standard English Anglican features, scaled down and transplanted to the mining frontier of the Colorado San Juans.
ESTABLISHING THE CHURCH
Coffee Montgomery Hoge was an imposing priest. Tall, thin, and arrow erect, with a. full, snow-white beard and penetrating eyes, he was definitely a man to be noticed in the mining camp. The fact that he also wore a six-shooter over his cassock probably didn’t hurt his reputation either! Except for the gun, Parson Hoge looked like an Old Testament patriarch.
“Parson Hoge is one of the great characters of Colorado history. Undismayed in the face of opposition, insults and massive indifference to the Church, he finally won the hearts of thousands who saw in him an example of disciplined Christian life. There are stories of his rounding up congregations by visiting pool halls garbed in a cassock and toting six-shooters….[from The Episcopal Church in Colorado 1860-1963 by Allen du Pont Breck]
Parson Hoge was like the other pioneer ministers in the San Juans, The Reverend George Darley of the Presbyterian Church and Father James J. Gibbons of the Roman Catholic Church. All three men suffered untold hardships to establish their faith on the mining frontier, and all three men were immensely successful at seeing their little flocks grow. Although the regular Episcopal services were held at the Ouray Court House until St. John’s was completed, Parson Hoge is also reported to have strode into the various saloons in Ouray, banged his revolver butt on the bar to get the attention of the patrons, and admonished them to come to the worship service then and there. Apparently they did, bringing along the “soiled doves” who worked in the upstairs rooms above the gambling halls. These less-than-upstanding citizens of Ouray must have donated liberally as the hat was passed for the offering, because construction on the new church building commenced quickly, and by early 1880 the church was already occupied.
Of course, the more conventional worship services which were conducted in the Court House were attended not only by the Welsh and Cornish miners, but also by the English mine owners and investors who were in Ouray in large numbers. Presumably, their more conventional generosity also helped get St. John’s off to a quick and healthy start. In addition, it seems that the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado took an active interest in the establishment of a mission in Ouray, and Bishop Spaulding provided a substantial portion of the funds required to purchase the land and to construct the church building.
On February 18, 1880, the Ouray Times reported “at a meeting of St. John’s Episcopal Mission held this day the following preamble and resolutions were unanimously adopted: ‘Whereas, under the guidance of a kind providence and the liberal contributions of the Rt. Rev. Bishop
Spaulding and various residents of Ouray and other places, we were enabled to occupy the basement of our church now being erected at the commencement of the present Lenten season, and while we are now enjoying the comforts and privileges of a church home, we cannot forget the favors shown us by the county officials since July, 1877. Therefore, be it resolved that we return our sincere thanks to the county commissioners, the county judges and the sheriffs officials of Ouray County for the privilege granted us of holding services in the Court House the past two and a half years and resolved that a copy of the foregoing furnished the Times and the Muldoon [Ouray’s two newspapers] for publication.” The resolution was signed by Parson Hoge, J. D. Cram and Josiah Fogg, wardens, and by J. E. Peterson, secretary.
THE EARLY YEARS 1880-1920
Sometime in 1880, after the church building was occupied, but before any further construction work was begun, Coffee Montgomery Hoge left Ouray for Rico, where he founded St. Luke’s Mission. He shortly thereafter went to Durango, where he founded St. Mark’s Mission in that location. He did not return to Ouray. Perhaps it was assumed that the little congregation in Ouray was well on its way toward self-sufficiency, and that Parson Hoge’s considerable talents were needed elsewhere. It was, after all, not uncommon for the pioneer ministers of all denominations in Colorado to establish one congregation after another: Paster Darley was in Denver and Lake City before coming to Ouray; Father Gibbons came from Denver to Ouray and also served simultaneously in Silverton and Rico. Parson Hoge was replaced during 1880 by The Reverend Edward S. Cross. Rev. Cross, while perhaps not cutting the same figure as his predecessor, was nevertheless well-loved by his congregation and passionately concerned with the welfare of the miners in the town. He was one of the early advocates for the establishment of a hospital for the miners of Ouray, which was finally completed in 1887 next door to St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue. It was named St. Joseph’s Hospital. It would be run by the Sisters of Mercy, who came up from Durango.
It was Rev. Cross’s former congregation which donated the beautiful stone baptismal font which is still in use at St. John’s more than one hundred years later. It is inscribed “In memory of two Cornell children who died July 3 and August 12, 1883.” Life in a mining town at high attitude was hard, and the burial register of St.John’s, as well as newspaper reports of the time and the inscriptions on the tombstones at the Cedar Hill Cemetery (known as “Doc Rowan’s Farm” because the good doctor ‘planted’ so many of his patients!) give some inkling of how people died.
The burial register of St. John’s lists “consumption” as a common cause of death, as well as more colorful entries, such as “kicked in the head by a horse,” “fell down a mine shaft,” and simply “murdered.” Life on the mining frontier was not all that civilized.
Between 1880 and 1920, St. John’s was served by no less than seventeen different vicars. Finally, in 1920, the Ouray mission was placed under the jurisdiction of St.Paul’s Mission in Montrose. By the time this took place, Ouray was in an economic slump, caused by the fall in silver and gold prices and the resulting shutdown of many of the mines.
THE MIDDLE PERIOD 1920-1975
The Episcopal church in Ouray was not the only denomination to feel the economic pinch and loss of members after 1920. The hospital in Ouray, for example, called St. Joseph’s and run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in a building located next door to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, was sold in 1920 to a private physician because of the economic burden to the Church.
The Sisters had once promised Tom Walsh, the owner of the famed Camp Bird Mine, that they would always operate a hospital in Ouray for the miners if Walsh would bail them out of the their mortgage woes. By 1920, they had to ask Walsh’s widow and daughter to be let out of their commitment, since there simply were not enough miners left in Ouray to justify their continued efforts.
The hard economic times in Ouray during this period were reflected in the finances of St. John’s, where a mortgage on the church for $600 was taken out during the 1920s to secure the only loan ever taken by the church. This loan was repaid within a mere five years, but it does indicate that times were not good for the congregation during this period.
During the middle period, one of the longest-serving vicars was The Reverend James Foster of Montrose. Father Foster’s son William, also an Episcopal priest, served for many years at St. Matthew’s Church in Grand Junction. The younger Foster retired from active service in 1992.
Another priest who served St. John’s during the summer months for a total of thirteen years was The Reverend Laurence Spencer, former rector of the Church of the Ascension in Denver. Father Spencer was interested in the early history of the church, and gradually assembled much information about the founding period, which he shared with various interested members of the congregation, including Alvin McCoy, who wrote an early history of St. John’s for the Centennial issue of the Ouray newspaper in 1976.
During the years between 1968 and 1975, the vicars of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montrose came up to Ouray on Sunday evenings to conduct services at 5:00 PM. These men included Fathers Wilson, Stewart, McGee and Curtis.
THE MODERN PERIOD 1975-PRESENT
In 1975, the Reverend Lawrence R. Kern became the first resident vicar of St. John’s in more than 30 years. Father Kern was a worker-priest, supporting himself with various secular jobs while serving as pastor of the small flock of faithful Episcopalians in Ouray. Initially, when Father Kern arrived, the congregation at St. John’s consisted of perhaps a half dozen families. Through energetic efforts, the congregation slowly grew to about 50 members. Father Kern was instrumental in rallying the small congregation to a new sense of self and initiating several important projects, the most notable being the construction of a new parish hall.
Because Kern was a bachelor, an apartment was constructed as the second story of the new building for use as his residence. The parish hall is connected to the main church by a long hallway. The two buildings and the hallway exterior form three walls of an outdoor columbarium.
Building of the parish hall was accomplished with a lot of donated materials and labor. The exterior stonework was carefully matched to the stone used on the original church building and the wainscoting used inside the parish hail was removed from the old Revenue Mine, which was active in the Sneffels Mining District about the time that the original church was constructed.
The completed parish hall contains a large meeting room, a kitchen, and a church office. The Sunday School classroom and a nursery are also housed in this structure behind movable room dividers. The 1970s were a time of great change within the Episcopal Church in America, including the adoption of a revised Book of Common Prayer, the ordination of the first women priests, and the adoption of official” positions on controversial social issues like abortion and homosexuality.
Father Kern was unable to accept some of these changes, and decided to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. He resigned his priestly duties at St. John’s in 1985, and was replaced by Father Stephen Wengrovious. Father Wengrovious, his wife Christine and their two small children moved into the apartment above the parish hall.
During Father Wengrovious’ tenure, a number of changes were made in the worship at St. John’s. The revised Book of Common Prayer was adopted, replacing the old 1928 version. Girls were allowed to become acolytes, and a number of them became regulars at Sunday services.
Finally, a woman, Nancy Rule, was asked to serve as a chalice bearer. Shortly after that, a second woman, Elizabeth Kelsey, was added to the roster of rotating chalice bearers. On July 1, 1992, Father Wengrovious resigned as vicar of St. John’s, after a period of discord within the congregation, and the family moved to Delta, Colorado.
Father Ross Blackstock of Hotchkiss became the new vicar of St. John’s. He and his wife Virginia, who owned a fruit orchard in Hotchkiss, commuted to Ouray several days per week for church services and a Bible study class. Prior to assuming the duties at St. John’s, Father Blackstock was the interim vicar at the Church of the Nativity in Grand Junction while that small congregation raised up a Canon Nine priest from within their own ranks.
In 1994 Bruce Laird became vicar of St. John’s and then when St. John’s attained parish status, Rev. Laird became the Rector. Laird left St. John’s in 2005 and after a short period with supply priests The Rev. Jo Ann Ford became Rector. Rev Ford retired in 2011 and after a short search, the Rev. David Vickers was appointed Rector in September of 2011.