by Nancy Christofferson
St. Mary Parish is probably one of the oldest in the State of Colorado, dating back to at least 1866 when Father Joseph Percevault was sent to Huerfano County to fulfill the duties of priest.
The parish was first known as Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows and was formally established by Bishop Michebeuf in 1869. With no church buildings, the itinerant priests went from plaza to plaza, or settlement to settlement, on what, in a perfect world, would be monthly visits, in order to christen infants and to perform weddings and funerals. While his residence and main church evidently were near the present site of Gardner, Fr. Percevault oversaw the building of Walsenburg’s first Catholic Church near (or, IN) the intersection of today’s Seventh and Main streets.
When parish duties became too numerous, and distances too far, Fr. Percevault took the western end of Huerfano County. Fr. Louis Merles came up from Costilla, NM to take the east, including Walsenburg, in 1866 when he was appointed pastor. The first church had burned, so he undertook the construction of a second, and larger, building. This was built near the Cucharas River, too near, it developed, as the building was destroyed in a flood in 1878.
Fr. Merles had meanwhile been killed in a carriage accident in September 1876 and Fr. Gabriel Ussel, or Ussell was sent to St. Mary Parish in October 1876.
Fr. Ussel was charged with oversight of construction of Walsenburg’s third Catholic church by Bishop Machebeuf in the fall of 1878. This assignment proved a challenge, and with one problem after another, building did not start until 1882 and the church opened for services that summer.
The church could seat only 150 people, so it soon became apparent a larger building was needed. Fr. Ussel tackled this challenge in 1892 when work began on the fourth, and final, church building. Again, troubles, no least one the financing, plagued construction. The church was finally dedicated in June 1900.
Fr. Ussel had first attempted to establish a Catholic school in 1889, and continued his efforts through the years. He used personal funds to buy properties adjoining the church. After his death in October 1909, at the age of nearly 78, it was discovered he had left several thousand dollars for the express purpose of building a school. His former assistant, Fr. Lefebvre, took over the reins and began the project in 1911 when a contract was let to a Pueblo firm for the construction of the Ussel Memorial School. Lefebvre died before completion and Fr. John B. Liciotti became pastor of the parish in 1913.
Fr. Liciotti not only finished the school construction project, he saw it become one of the most important parochial schools in the state.
With completion of the school, teaching sisters were needed, and the bishop went to the Benedictine convent in Atchison, Kansas to find suitable teachers. At least five arrived in January 1914, and two more joined them within a few months. Their presence naturally called for more building, since they needed a place to live, and Fr. Liciotti had a brick home erected for them. The school evidently opened in the fall of 1913 with two or three nuns already in place. The first graduating class was that of 1917.
Fr. Ussel’s dream school was for as many as 400 students. The first registrations totaled around 300. The brick school was built on lots Ussel had purchased through the years.
The school grew by leaps and bounds and in 1922 the west wing was added. Eight seniors had been graduated that May. In the fall of 1925, 572 students enrolled.
In 1926, with enrollment soaring, the east wing of the school was built. This contained an auditorium/gymnasium and was said to cost between $75,000 and $95,000. Construction began in April but completion was not until the term had begun. The new space was formally opened Oct. 19 with a chicken dinner and dance. Dedication was Dec. 30, 1926, during which Fr. Liciotti observed his Silver Jubilee as a priest. The auditorium was destroyed by fire in 1974, after the high school had been closed (in 1971).
In 1929 enrollment was 550, of which about 140 were in the high school. The numbers qualified St. Mary School as the largest parochial school in Colorado. The graduating class of 37 in 1933 was said to have been the largest to date, but the early 1940s saw as many as 42 graduates. The peak enrollment was probably that of September 1952, when 610 students were said to be registered. A survey undertaken in 1951 showed 71% of Walsenburg residents were Catholic, though not all students were of this faith.
In 1946 the school acquired its own football stadium, in the 300 block of West 9th Street. Lights were installed for night games. In 1948 a new press box and steel bleachers were installed. Further improvements came in 1950.
Enrollment figures decreased in the 1960s, and it was decided to close the high school following the 1970-71 term. The final graduating class was led academically by Nichole Ann Bocim, valedictorian, and Douglas Brgoch, salutatorian. The elementary school continued into the late 1990s before finances, dwindling enrollment, lack of instructors and building maintenance proved insurmountable obstacles and the school was closed.
Fr. Liciotti retired in 1941 due to poor health, and died in 1950. His replacement as priest had been Fr. Raymond Newell, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1944. At that time Fr. Newell’s assistant had gone to serve as a chaplain in World War II, so the second assistant, Rev. Howard L. Delaney, who took up duties in 1940, was made administrator of St. Mary Parish at the tender age of 32. And that, folks, is a whole ‘nother story!