This history of our Diocese can be measured as a series of steps, one leading to another, and all leading towards the future where we, the family of Christ in southern and western Colorado, are united in vision an din purpose. In this manner we reflect on our history, not as a static trail of dates and events, but as a dynamic journey of spiritual growth, empowerment and ministry. From the formative leadership of Bishop Joseph Willging, Pueblo's first bishop, through the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, under the guidance of Bishop Charles Buswell, to the organization and goal setting implemented by Bishop Arthur N. Tafoya, our Diocese has evolved to meet the challenges faced by each era, and is prepared to embrace the challenges of the new millennium.
The year 2011 will mark seventy years of the Diocese of Pueblo's organization as an official and separate diocese. Before that, the area, which includes the entire southern half of the state from the Utah border in the west, to the Kansas border in the east, was included in the giant expanse of the Diocese of Denver, (established in 1887). And previous to that, it was frontier land, little settled, wild, and rich in soil, silver, and gold. This was the territory whose boundaries had not been defined and whose Catholic souls fell under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, (established in 1853), under the leadership of the Frenchman, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy.
From his post in Santa Fe, Archbishop Lamy entrusted the varied spiritual needs of the Utah/Colorado territory to his Vicar, the French missionary, Fr. Joseph Machebeuf. The territory of Colorado was problematic to serve: Not only was the terrain defined by steep, often inaccessible mountain ranges and expansive prairies, but the people who chose to settle the land were equally as unique in culture, language and customs. There were the early settlers from northern New Mexico, farmers and ranchers, who settled the southern regions of the San Luis Valley in the early 1850's, and established the first Catholic church in Conejos (1858). Then there were the Anglo-American settlers, and European immigrants, many lured to the Colorado territory when gold was discovered in the late 1850's. In addition, tribes of nomadic Indians hunted and traversed the land, and Mexico and the United States quarreled and warred over which country owned it. These were the challenges faced by the early Catholic missionaries who proposed to establish parishes and celebrate the Sacraments in the Colorado frontier.
In 1868, Fr. Machebeuf was appointed Bishop of the Vicariate of the Colorado/Utah territory, which was still under the jurisdiction of Santa Fe. Eight years later, Colorado became a state. Encouraged by an expanding railroad that connected Denver to Durango, and all the mining camps in between, Colorado experienced a population explosion in the later part of the century. This influx of people spurred the establishment of a dozen parishes in the southern portion of the state. To accommodate the various ethnic nationalities, many parishes adopted a cultural preoccupation to serve the German, Slovak, Irish, Italian and Mexican populations. Bishop Machebeuf invited missionaries such as the Sisters of Charity, and the Italian Jesuits to help serve the growing needs of the Catholic settlers. In 1889, two years after the official establishment of Denver as a Diocese, Bishop Machebeuf, the first Bishop of Colorado died. He was considered a pioneer in the establishment of the Church in Colorado, and helped shape the foundation of the Diocese of Denver, and consequently, the Diocese of Pueblo. (Bishop Machebeuf was succeeded by Bsihop Nicholas Matz, Bishop Henry Tihen and BIshop Urban Vehr, all who served the Diocese of Denver).
In December 1941, as the United States was pulled into World War II, news that the Catholic Church in Colorado was going to establish a new diocese for the southern half of the state arrived in Pueblo. The news became official on January 6, 1942, and the Diocese of Pueblo began its own history. The division of the Denver Diocese was necessary in order to create more intimacy and cohesiveness between diocese and parish, and to allow each diocese to focus on its own regional priorities. The state was spilt in two, with the southern half defining the Diocese of Pueblo and the northern half becoming the Archdiocese of Denver. At the time, the Diocese of Pueblo contained thirty counties, and covered an expanse of over 48,000 square miles, with a population of approximately 78,300 Catholics. The Diocese would be divided into six deaneries: Alamosa, Grand Junction, Durango, La Junta, Trinidad and Pueblo. (In 1983, the Diocese of Colorado Springs was formed, and the areas of Salida and Buena Vista, Chaffe County, formerly of the Diocese of Pueblo, were reassigned to the Diocese of Colorado Springs).
The first bishop of Pueblo, Bishop Joseph C. Willging, formerly the Vicar General of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, was installed at Sacred Heart Cathedral on March 12, 1942. He served the Diocese for seventeen years and was known as a "gifted organizer." During his episcopate the number of parishes increased from approximately thirty-nine to sixty and the number of priests increased from eighty-four to one hundred fifty-one. He insured the parochial education of children by encouraging the establishment of Catholic schools, and by inviting catechetical and missionary Sisters to tend to the catechetical instruction of both children and adults. Also during this period, the number of Catholic hospitals within the Diocese increased. His era of administration benefited from the post-war economy and the enthusiasm of the newly organized Diocese. Bishop Willging died suddenly in March 1959 of a heart attack.
Installed at Sacred Heart Cathedral on October 6, 1959 was Bishop Charles A. Buswell, from Oklahoma. His epoch of leadership was characterized by the changes he introduced after the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962. Present at all session of Vatican II, Bishop Buswell was inspired to affect positive liturgical change. He encouraged personal participation among the laity in the celebration of the mass, and emphasized ecumenism and social justice. Under his leadership, advisory boards comprised of both laity and clergy were formed, and the first lay administrator, Alex Staab, was hired at the Diocese. Also, it was during this time that the Bishop's Diocesan Fund was established to help support diocesan programs (1967).
Perhaps more difficult than implementing the vast changes brought about by Vatican II, was the decision to close Pueblo's twelve parochial schools in 1971. The action came after years of trying to find a financial solution to support the struggling school system. Although a difficult and controversial move, Bishop Buswell determined that if the Diocese could not provide Catholic education to everyone, it would not provide Catholic education to only the more financially fortunate.
Bishop Buswell served the Diocese of Pueblo for twenty years. At the age of sixty-five, he relinquished leadership of the Diocese to the third Bishop, Arthur N. Tafoya, from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Bishop Tafoya was installed on September 10, 1980. Confronting the Bishop were the challenges of a declining population of registered Catholics, and a nationwide shortage of priests and vocations to religious life. To combat these and other obstacles, and to exact feedback and participation from individual parishes, Bishop Tafoya initiated a goal setting process called Our Journey Together, 1985-1990, which resulted in the formulation of specific goals at the diocesan and parish level. This was followed by a second diocesan pastoral plan called, Sharing Our Gifts, 1993-1998; the promulgation of a third pastoral plan is expected soon.
Other accomplishments in Bishop Tafoya's episcopate include the establishment of the Catholic Diocese Foundation, Inc. Established in 1995, the Foundation functions as a resource to ensure the support of a variety of Catholic agencies and ministries. In 1996, the Deaconate program was created. This program provides formal training and support for individuals interested in serving their communities as deacons. In August 2000, after several years of preparation, eleven men were ordained as deacons; they were the first class in the program. The next class is expected to begin in the fall of 2001. Bishop Tafoya has also advocated formal Lay Ministry Formation to train leadership among laity. Also recently the Diocese has experienced the revitalization of Catholic education: The Shrine of St. Therese, in Pueblo, opened its doors to students after thirty years joining communities in Durango, Grand Junction, Trinidad, and John Neumman Schools in Pueblo, in offering parochial education.
In the fall of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Fernando Isern, a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami would become the fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Pueblo. Bishop Isern was ordained and installed on December 10, 2009. Bishop Isern made significant contributions to the Church of Pueblo during is tenure. He initiated perpetual adoration at the Shrine of St. Therese and has provided an outstanding example of faithfulness through his own habit of adoration. He oversaw the gradual expansion of pastoral and administrative services from the chancery staff to the priests and parishes of the diocese. Bishop Isern made pastoral visits to nearly all of the 53 parishes and 44 missions across 48,000 square miles of the diocese. He brought the fruit of his listening to the priests, deacons, staff and people of the parishes back to the Diocesan Pastoral Council. All these initiatives stand as a continuing legacy of his leadership. Pope Francis accepted Bishop Isern's abrupt resignation for health reasons on June 13, 2013.
Bishop Stephen J. Berg, a native of Miles City, Montana and priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas was ordained and installed as the fifth Bishop of Pueblo on February 27, 2014, by Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at a Mass in Pueblo.
Today, the world of media coverage, technological advancement and internet access has nearly erased the barriers of distance which challenged the Church in Colorado in its infancy. But with new advancements come new challenges. Whereas the early Catholic missionaries survived the adversity of terrain, the elements, and the wilderness to establish communities of faith, today's faithful must battle a shortage of priests, the demands of modern life and cultural diversity to ensure the survival of those faith communities. Yet we are confident that, armed with our faith in Christ and empowered with a common vision and common goal, we will continue to worship and bear witness to our faith in the Catholic-Christian tradition.