Iconic buildings are defined not by their age, but by the depth of their roots. In Europe, an 800-year-old church might be the spiritual heart of its village, while in New England, chapels that date to the 17th or 18th centuries serve the same role. Aspen’s relatively young history, however, is still measured decade by decade. Here, a church built only 135 years ago anchors its community in place and time, providing a link to tradition and a path of continuity.
The congregation of Aspen’s St. Mary Catholic Church held its first mass last summer after an extensive restoration—overseen by local firm Charles Cunniffe Architects—that lasted almost five years. Though the handsome exterior remains largely unchanged, much of the interior’s original aesthetic has been restored; an Aspenite from the late 1800s would now recognize the space inside—but would do so in the comfort of reliable heat and air conditioning.
As I documented the final stages of the renovation, I expected to capture the evolving beauty of a sacred space. Yet as I visited the construction site, what interested me most was decidedly human in nature. There are few experiences more worthwhile than watching artists and artisans harness their talents in the service of a grand goal. A project that is public, appreciated, and historic just seems to heighten that effort. As the church was transformed, architects, carpenters, painters, and historical specialists of all stripes exuded pride from beneath hard hats or well-stained overalls.
Now, the construction trucks are long gone and the scaffolding removed. The bell rings again for Sunday services, and the refurbished organ sounds better than ever. The original pews have been returned to their places, gently refinished but still carrying stories from a century of use. From the valley floor and the surrounding hills, St. Mary’s steeple provides a central focus amid a growing cityscape.
Two things have become clear: It takes a church to make a village. And it takes a village to make a church.