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Colorful Colorado: At Cañon City's former Holy Cross Abbey, glory lasts

March 11, 2018 Updated: June 14, 2018 at 12:54 pm
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About the series: Colorful Colorado introduces readers to some of the quirkiest— and often overlooked— people and places in the Centennial State. Explore more of the most interesting places in Colorado here.

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Light filters into the library through large stained glass windows at The Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado on Thursday, February 1, 2018.

CAÑON CITY - The monks are gone, along with the property's Catholic distinction, but whether the former Holy Cross Abbey is more historic than holy is beside the point. Respect is still requested.

It is now the Abbey Event Complex, the site of weddings and gatherings most every weekend. But anyone who pulls off U.S. 50 to admire the unique structure in southern Colorado should heed the signs around back, marking the old monastery yard a quiet zone. Of course, the Gothic towers and arches of brick, stone and stained glass, the soaring magnificence of it all, should be enough to leave one speechless.

Through the double doors inside, a placard still hangs as it did when boys came to school here with the expectation that they behave as "Benedictine Gentlemen." It asks for silence in these cold, shadowy corridors, for passersby to walk lightly, for doors to be closed quietly among the rooms where monks lived - the quarters now musty and decaying.

"We had to dig through attics for this stuff," says Brenda McKay, stopping to show a display case of once-used chalices, trays and psalm books.

Now she coordinates events at the former abbey. But having grown up in Cañon City sharing residents' reverence for the place, she knows it would be wrong to sit in her office with business her only priority.

A bird flies over the crenelations onThe Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado on Thursday, February 1, 2018. The abbey had an illustrious history as a Benedictine abbey, then Catholic boarding school, a winery and now events center. 

It is "out of respect" that paranormal investigators are barred here, she says, though the Boy Scouts set up a haunted house in the basement every Halloween. Yes, she says, the ghosts are real, "but they just like to check on us. I view them as caretakers."

Also watching are the living, those Abbey Bears who return every year with homecoming pride. The bustle, though, has vanished from the field where two goalposts still stand, the field that graduates swear was "blessed," for losing was so uncommon.

This August will be Michael Smith's 40th reunion.

"The atmosphere at the Abbey School was just always happy," he says. "The teachers, the monks, the laypeople who worked there, they provided us an upbringing we probably wouldn't have had anywhere else."

During the 1970s, when the abbey had its highest enrollment of 240, Smith was but one boy from out of state. Many others came from overseas to the school that became known as one of the finest this side of the Mississippi.

It produced the likes of former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Celestial Seasonings founder Mo Siegel. The monks also ran a summer camp attended by Jack Swigert, the Apollo 13 astronaut who uttered the famous but oft-misquoted line: "Houston, we've had a problem." Also out of the camp came Thomas Dooley, the doctor whose humanitarianism was cited by President John F. Kennedy when he launched the Peace Corps.

More than the education, the Holy Cross Abbey's reputation was built on programs such as the Vaqueros, the competitive horseback team helmed in its heyday by Brother David, who worked out of the barn where now rests a broken, rusted tractor. Brother Nathan, a skilled craftsmen, taught art. Brother Mark ran the glee club, which traveled the world, leaving such an impression on parents that they had to enroll their boys, no matter the sacrifice for the cost of tuition.

Light filters into the sanctuary through a large stained glass window at The Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado on Thursday, February 1, 2018. 

"It was bigger than life," says Brendan Pardue, who still lives in Cañon City, decades after his parents moved the family so their sons could attend the abbey and their daughter could attend the sister school, the also-closed St. Scholastica Academy.

Just before the turn of the last century, the nuns came to the area to grow a mission as the coal industry boomed. Pennsylvanian monks followed, breaking ground for their grand ideas in 1924.

That decade, as immigrants flocked to Cañon City, the Ku Klux Klan was known to burn crosses in the yard beneath the bell tower. Legend has it that Abbot Cyprian Bradley perched atop it at night, warding off the gang with shotgun in hand.

Bradley didn't outlast the financial hardships that befell the abbey after construction went way over budget. He stepped down but was honored with a burial in the small cemetery in nearby fields, under the juniper trees with other Benedictine fathers and brothers who died at war.

The school survived the Great Depression, emerging as a beacon for families everywhere. But the 1970s rocked the abbey like many parochial schools across America: Enrollment sharply declined.

The building across the road in which Brother Nathan once taught art is now the Holy Cross Winery tasting room, where the story is told of a monk in 2000 performing an exorcism in Palisade. From grape country, the monk returned with a last-ditch idea to financially save the abbey.

The winery continues - thanks in part to the eye-catching abbey that draws people into town to unknowingly discover the vino. "That's better than any signage we could put out on the highway," says maker Jeff Stultz, who also credits the winery's survival to the capital-touting owner who came from New Jersey in 2005.

A barrel stamped with the logo of The Winery at The Holy Cross Abbey rests in the production facility in Canon City, Colorado on Thursday, February 1, 2018. The winery was the result of a desperate attempt by the monks to restore the abbey's finances, but transferred to private ownership after the abbey closed anyways. 

That year, unable to revive the school that closed in 1985, the monks left. The nuns went later and were celebrated at a reception where locals cried. Emotion overcame descendants of those immigrants who were welcomed and protected by the religious order that was now gone from Cañon City.

A few monks stuck around, including the glee club's leader, Brother Mark. In the afternoon, he'd sit up in the bell tower playing the organ. Now an automated carillon is set to play hymns around noon.

But "it doesn't keep very good time anymore," Mc-Kay says. The mechanism is unpredictable, emitting a soft chime faintly heard over the wind and highway.

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