Much of the content of this article was re-printed from an article written by Mary Pampa for the 25th Anniversary edition of Dateline Colorado, February 16, 1968 Volume 1, Number 17 along with historical data from The Willging Years written by Patrick Stauter, Adams Press Chicago, 1986.
Before the Diocese of Pueblo
Our story begins in 1850 when a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Lamy, who had been named the vicar apostolic of New Mexico (which became the Diocese of Santa Fe) came to this area of the country as a missionary.
He brought with him his old friend Father Joseph P. Machebeuf, who would become instrumental in building the foundation of the Catholic Church in Colorado.
Their labors inspired the novel by Willa Cathers “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and led to the first Catholic Church being erected in 1857 at Conejos. Named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church’s first pastor was Father Jose Vicente Montano.
Then, the gold rush hit Northern Colorado. The towns of Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo were founded and from the East came fortune seekers and settlers. At this time, a large portion of Eastern Colorado was under the jurisdiction of Bishop John Baptist Meige of Leavenworth. In 1860 Bishop Meige travelled to Denver, the Pikes Peak region and the mining towns, after which he consulted his fellow bishops in the region and they decided to transfer the Colorado Territory to the Diocese of Santa Fe given that it was geographically closer to Santa Fe and priests from Santa Fe were already serving in the area. In September of that year Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe sent his friend Father Machebeuf to care for the Catholics in the Rocky Mountain mining region. Father Machebeuf reached Denver a month later and began building Denver’s first church. At this time his congregation numbered about 30 or 40 Catholics.
In 1861 Colorado territory was officially organized and President Lincoln named William Gilpin the first Territorial Governor.
In 1863 the first Catholic school in the territory was opened in Denver. The following year, three sisters of Loretto arrived in Denver to found St. Mary’s academy. They were the first sisters to establish a community in Colorado.
In 1866 the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore decided that a new vicariate should be formed to care for Colorado and Utah. The Vatican agreed in 1868, naming Father Machebeuf the vicar apostolic for the region. The French priest went to Cincinnati to be consecrated a bishop, but his trip was as much to seek priests and money to further the work of the Church in the Southwest. At this time, he had only four priests in the area and limited financial means.
In 1871 Bishop Machebeuf was given some relief when Utah was transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco and in 1872 the Jesuits, who were working in the San Luis valley, established a new mission in Pueblo. This mission, St. Ignatius, was the forerunner of today’s Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Colorado joined the federal union in 1876. Soon afterward, a new wave of prosperity was triggered by silver strikes in the mountains. The Catholic Church responded to the population boon that came with it. New churches, schools and hospitals sprang up and on August 16, 1887 the Vicariate of Colorado became the Diocese of Denver.
The Diocese of Pueblo: The first 25 years
Fast forward to 1941: On November 15 of that year, the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, decreed that the Diocese of Pueblo was to be erected and Denver was to become an archdiocese. The Rt. Rev. Monsignor Joseph Clement Willging, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Butte, Montana and vicar general of the Diocese of Helena, was appointed the first bishop of the new Diocese of Pueblo. The news was received in Pueblo on December 6, 1941. Bishop Willging was ordained in Helena on February 24, 1942 and installed as Bishop of Pueblo on March 12, 1942. We were wholly a diocese on that day!
The early years of the diocese found our people participating in the war effort. In 1943 Bishop Willging granted permission for priests to say afternoon Masses to accommodate defense workers. One of the Bishop’s first large projects, a Catholic high school for the city of Pueblo, was begun in 1943, but a fund drive for the school was postponed until the war was over. Ground for the new school was finally broken in 1948. In 1945 the first edition of The Southern Colorado Register, our first Catholic newspaper was published and the long planned Pueblo Catholic High School was opened in 1951. In all, 18 parishes were established in Southern Colorado during Bishop Willging’s years. The number of priests increased to 151 and the total Catholic population of the Diocese rose to 105,000.
Bishop Willging passed away suddenly of a heart attack while attending the closing of Forty Hours Devotion at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, March 3, 1959. His legacy of foundation building will live on in our diocese.
On August 14, 1959 the announcement came that Pope John XXIII had appointed Monsignor Charles A. Buswell, pastor of Christ the King church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to be the second Bishop of Pueblo. Bishop Buswell was installed on October 6, 1959 at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Although Bishop Buswell did not have to contend with a dangerous frontier, he was a pioneer. He took the Diocese of Pueblo through its infancy and adolescence and brought it to the threshold of a new era for the entire Church.
The Second Vatican council opened the windows of the ancient Church and the winds of renewal blew through. Those winds reached Colorado. The bishops of the Church, meeting in Rome, examined many aspects of the Church and set in motion a world-wide renewal of Christianity.
Along with many other developments, in 1964 the diocese received its first community of predominantly religious brothers when the Marianists arrived to staff the new Roncalli High School for boys. In 1966, the former Pueblo Catholic High School reopened as Seton High School for girls, as sister school for Roncalli. During this same year, Bishop Buswell also established the first Bishop’s Advisory Council which was composed not only of priests but also lay people – a first for the diocese. A lay business manager, Alex Staab, was put in place and a new business office operating under his guidance was the first of its kind in the country. At the close of our diocese’s first 25 years, we were 125,000 Catholics scattered from the flat eastern plains to the mountain communities on the western slope. The diocese was divided into 58 parishes and 20 mission churches, served by 159 priests.
The May issue of Today’s Catholic will take a look at the next 25 years of the Diocese of Pueblo.