A Short History of St. Francis of Assisi
The history of St. Francis of Assisi Parish is relatively long and colorful, going back to the Gold Rush years of 1858-59, when pioneers began pouring into this part of the country. In 1861 Congress created the Colorado Territory which is identical to the present state boundaries, and in 1887, railroads to Cheyenne connected the east and west bringing more people into the new territory.
One historian wrote:
A group of Bavarian Catholics, some with interfamily relationships, found the area south and east of Castle Rock to their liking and became known as the Lake Gulch Community…. If it had not been for these Germans, a few other Catholics and [the Irishman], William Dillon, there would not have been a church in Castle Rock until much later.
In Castle Rock, early meetings were held in the Lake Gulch schoolhouse and in private houses. It seems that the friars and Diocese of Denver were unable to help with finances to build a church. Eventually, the church was financed partly through the efforts of Henry Hart of Ireland who came to Douglas County in 1880 to visit his nephew, William Dillon. William was a lawyer, and his mother in Ireland left some money to him for a building fund. The family’s one request was that the church be named after St. Francis of Assisi in honor of William’s brother, Henry Dillon, who had become a Franciscan priest.
By 1887, other pledges amounting to $500, some from non-Catholics, were collected. The Castle Rock Journal of October 4, 1887, reported that, “It has been decided that the Roman Catholic Chapel will be built south of the courthouse square. Estimated cost $1,000.” Local parishioners, donating their labor, used native rhyolite stone from nearby quarries. By the 4 th of July 1888, the stonework was completed, and on December 16, 1888, the church was dedicated.
The Castle Rock Journal again note that,
“The dedication of the new Catholic Church took place last Sabbath (December 16, 1888). Quite a large congregation were in attendance. Father Rivallier and O’Ryan of Denver officiated at the ceremony. The church having been blessed and dedicated, Father Rivallier said Mass, after which Father O’Ryan preached. A collection was taken up and $27.50 realized, the whole of which sum was handed over to Mr. Dillon by Father Rivallier to assist paying off the small debt still remaining on the church.”
Franciscan friars from Denver, carrying the things necessary for Mass and the Sacraments, made a month-long circuit by train and horse and buggy to the outlying communities of the plains. These “circuit riders” as they were sometimes called, visited such remote places as Cheyenne Wells, Elizabeth, Elbert, Stratton, Burlington, Calhan, Kiowa, Monument, Parker, and Castle Rock, saying Mass, baptizing and marrying in ranch houses, schools, and stores. Until 1930, St. Francis of Assisi had irregular services and no assigned priests. Priests from Denver, Littleton, and the Friars from St. Elizabeth’s in Denver ministered to these communities until 1911, when St. Francis became a mission of Colorado Springs (1911-1915). After 1915, Denver priests and friars came when they could. From 1024-29, Mercy Hospital provided priests. Finding priests to meet the needs of the people was an on-going challenge. A newspaper article stated that the priests said Mass with a pistol hidden among the statues.
From 1930 to the early 1950’s, Fr. Walter Steidle traveled seventy-five miles every Sunday saying Mass at the six churches in his territory, including St. Francis of Assisi. He was a rock hunter and mason by trade and added a back room and front vestibule to the church. It was Fr. Steidle who invited Sisters from Denver to come for one or two weeks during the summer in order to provide religious instruction for the children. An Altar Society was also established, and this group would sponsor dances and dinners to raise money for the church.
In the early 1960’s it was evident that the church had out-grown its original site. A new location was chosen overlooking the valley and Pike’s Peak to the south, while the original stone church became a restaurant that still operates on the town square. The new wood and stone church with its wall of windows behind the altar has been in use since its dedication in 1966.
In January of 1985, St. Francis of Assisi became part of the newly formed Diocese of Colorado Springs headed by Bishop Richard C. Hanifen. Having retired, Bishop Hanifen handed the reins of the diocese over to Bishop Michael Sheridan.
Several resident pastors have ministered to the people of this community since Fr. Steidle’s time. Some of them are: Fathers Thomas McMahon, Clement Gallagher, Emmanuel Gabel, William Vollmer, Dennis Dwyer, Herb Hayek, O.P. assisted by Fr. George Reynolds, O.P., and as of July 1, 2008 Father Brad Noonan has been installed as Pastor.