To look at the modest Catholic church on a side street in Dove Creek St. Judes, with its plain white stucco and square bell tower you might never imagine what history is stored within its walls. But once you enter the front door you know that St. Judes Catholic Church is no ordinary house of worship.
The whole interior floor, walls and ceiling gleams with the golden beauty of well-tended ponderosa pine. Its not just any pine, but old-growth lumber from the Montezuma County forests of the 1920s. On a visit last month, Steve Garchar, St. Judes parish finance committee representative, challenged those present to find a single knot in any of the boards. That the pine is still perfect after more than 80 years is no accident, for it was cut and milled for this church by one of Colorados largest and most influential lumber companies: McPhee & McGinnity of Denver.
Numerous palatial homes in Denver hark back to the influence of McPhee & McGinnity, as do massive business buildings, loft conversions, churches and chapels. But St. Judes parishioners believe none can rival the spiritual uplift that this small church brought to Dove Creek back in 1948-1949.
St. Judes story begins even earlier in the century, when in 1924, the lumber moguls began establishing a mill and town southwest of Dolores on what had been pioneer Charles Johnsons 1880s homestead. Named McPhee, the town at one time was the largest community in Montezuma County, with a population at its peak said to number nearly 1,400.
With a majority of its residents Roman Catholic in faith, as were the lumber company giants, there was a crying need in the town for a permanent place of worship. Until a church could be built at McPhee, said Thomas Johnson, former Cortez Newspapers and Dolores Star editor, the mill owners fired up their narrow gauge train engine and took people to Dolores for Mass. They had to bring their own boxes to sit on in the rustic working train, he continued.
Father Joseph H. Brunner, traveling pastor for the areas far flung Catholic population, encouraged and, in 1928, finally persuaded William McPhee to support erecting a church for the Catholic families living there. McPhee chose the location on a hill overlooking the town. A rectory and a cemetery would adjoin the church. Voluntary payroll deductions aided in raising funds, along with contributions from William McPhee, the Catholic Church Extension Society, Catholics and non-Catholic residents. McPhee donated the beautifully milled pine for the interior and boards for its original exterior. Construction was by the lumber companys carpenters released from their other duties to build the church.
Solemnly dedicated as Our Lady of the Assumption on June 13, 1929, the church was packed with worshippers and visitors. Employees received a half day off to spend touring the beautiful new sanctuary, and The Dolores Star hailed the church as the largest and finest edifice of the kind in Montezuma County.
Over the years, the business of lumbering brought jobs to hundreds of residents of Montezuma County. However, the mill and towns fortunes boomed and went bust several times during the Great Depression. William McPhee died, and ownership changed several times and not always for the workers benefit. Damaging fires plagued the company again and again until a fire in 1948 finally ended McPhees many evolutions. At this time, many of the residences were moved from McPhee to surrounding towns, farms and ranches.
By 1948 the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption was abandoned (in McPhee) and deteriorating from disuse, wrote Father Francis Papesh in his journal. The diocese offered the building to serve a growing Catholic population in Cortez, but Father Papesh imagined a larger and improved church for Cortez.
At the same time, Dove Creek, in Dolores County, had no church for its Catholic population. Father Brunner came once a month, from 1938-1941, for services in the homes of Anna Garchar, Frank, Joe and Paul Fury, and later John Garchar, wrote Cindy Carhart of the Dolores County Historical Society. It wasnt until two years after Father Brunners death in 1941 that Father Joseph Lane replaced him. He, too, came to Dove Creek once a month until 1948, when Father Francis Papesh became pastor, Carhart continued.
Father Papesh, the Dove Creek Fury and Garchar families, including Anna Garchar Chiles and husband George of Phoenix, arranged for the McPhee church to be moved to Dove Creek. Its lot was donated by Robert Hampton. All that remained was to get the old church up to its new home more than 30 miles of roads that were more primitive than todays highways.
The epic move involved the McGeechie Construction Co. cutting the building across the middle and taking it in pieces to Dove Creek. Bad weather intervened, and half the church had to spend the winter on a Cahone roadside. Thankfully there was little damage to the revered structure and its halves were reunited and stuccoed in 1949. Anna and George Chiles had donated the moving funds, so were given the honor of naming the church. They chose to honor St. Jude, the saint of the impossible.
St. Judes Catholic Church was dedicated on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 1949, to throngs of worshippers and well-wishers and has remained the spiritual center for Dove Creeks families for well over 60 years.
Thank you to the following for their assistance in this column: Audrey Garchar, Dolores County Historian; her husband Steve Garchar and his parents John and Emily Garchar; Tommy Johnson, former Cortez Newspapers editor and board member of Montezuma County Historical Society; Father Pat Valdez, Pastor of Montelores Catholic Community (for use of the parish scrapbook containing journals of Father Brunner and Father Papesh). For a more complete McPhee history, see Timber, The Story of McPhee by Sylvia McClellan (available at the Dolores Public Library); Chapter Four, MCPhee, Colorado: A 20th Century Lumber Company Town by Lisa Masoulf for The River of Sorrows, The History of the Lower Dolores River Valley (Cortez, Dolores and Mancos libraries).
Coming Next: Do You Own a McPhee House?
Come hear John McHenrys History of the McCabe Ranch at the Montezuma County Historical Societys symposium, 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, at the Methodist Churchs Hampton Hall, 515 Park St., Cortez. John is the grandson of Leona and Stanley McCabe, a rancher and coach for the Dolores school system.
Joyce Lawrence is a board member of the Montezuma County Historical Society and may be reached for corrections, additions or comments at (970) 882-2636 or [email protected]