The plaque reads:
ST. MARY'S CATHOLIC CHURCH
This church stands on one of the oldest Catholic gathering places in Colorado. In 1860 Bishop Machebeuf celebrated Mass in the mining region, and in 1862, the parish provided an 'A' frame church on this site. The cornerstone for a permanent structure was set in 1872, and in 1882 one of the finest church bells in the west was consecrated. The edifice was completed in 1892 and dedicated as St. Mary's of Assumption.
Dr. Thomas Noel has written a thorough history at (visit link
"ST. MARY OF THE ASSUMPTION (1861)
Central City sprang up almost overnight after John H. Gregory struck paydirt in the spring of 1859, becoming the largest town in Colorado Territory during the 1860s. Argonauts swarmed up Clear Creek and soon satellite gold camps mushroomed around Central City--Apex, Black Hawk, Eureka, Gold Dirt, Missouri City, Mountain City, Nevadaville, Nugget, Russell Gulch, and Tip Top.
Father Machebeuf visited in 1860, celebrating the first Mass in the Sons of Malta Hall on Main Street. Mary York, the first white woman to settle in Gilpin County, was overjoyed that her church had come to the hell-bent mining town. Father Machebeuf presided over the first Catholic wedding in northern Colorado, when, on December 30, 1860, Mary York became the wife of Central City's fearless first sheriff, William Z. Cozens, who converted to Catholicism in order to win her hand. On their wedding night, if local folklore is true, the sheriff kept a prisoner chained to their honeymoon bed.
St. Mary's started as a mission of St. Mary's in Denver in 1861. After renting theaters, billiard saloons, and even a dance hall for Father Machebeuf's monthly Masses, Mary and William Cozens helped the pioneer priest acquire a two-story frame house. Bishop Jean B. Lamy of Santa Fe came to Central City in 1861 to bless the new church, the first for any denomination in the Colorado mountain mining regions. Bishop Lamy reported to his superior, the archbishop of St. Louis:
The most prosperous place I saw is what is called Gregory Diggings, still further up there is another place called Nevada. All these places form one street of crowded houses in the steepest gully you could imagine, three or four miles in length. Quartz mills, stores, shops, dwelling houses all mixed up. New mines are discovered every day. I saw a number of mills at work. . . . It is certainly the most curious sight I ever saw.
The booming Central City mission received Thomas A. Smith as the first resident pastor in 1863, followed in 1866 by Father Raverdy. Honoratus Burion, the third pastor, was an energetic fellow, after whom a Central City street leading to the church is named. He planned a cathedral-sized church seating 800 with twin 150-foot spires, a bold plan for which Bishop Machebeuf laid the cornerstone in 1872.
After the fire of May 21, 1874, destroyed the rectory, convent, and the old wooden church, parishioners moved into the basement of the partially completed new church. Under Father Burion's enthusiastic direction, they staged a lottery to build the $75,000 edifice, only to have the fund-raiser abscond with the proceeds.
Not only the fire and the embezzlement, but mining doldrums doomed Burion's plans. After the flush times, Central City's population stabilized at around 2,500, and about 3,000 more people remained in the rest of the 149 square miles of Gilpin County. Despite these setbacks, Irish miners donated a life-sized statue of St. Patrick and began calling the basement church "St. Patrick's Cathedral," but at Bishop Machebeuf's insistence the name officially remained St. Mary of the Assumption.
Bishop Machebeuf and Father Burion brought the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth to Central City in 1873. On Gunnell Hill behind the church, the nuns opened the St. Aloysius Select and Boarding School. This $30,000, two-story, Gothic revival stone academy was crowned by a bell tower and a Celtic cross. The sisters and their students staged annual fund-raising performances in the Central City Opera House, using drapery and stage props borrowed from a local undertaker. William J. Howlett guided the Gilpin County parish from 1879 to 1886, constructing a handsome mansard-roofed house for the sisters and connecting the growing parish complex with an elevated wooden staircase. On weekdays, a hundred school children trudged up Gunnell Hill on the 150 rickety stairs to St. Aloysius. On Sundays, as many as 700 Gilpin County Catholics squeezed into St. Mary's for Masses.
After 1880, Leadville, Aspen, Cripple Creek, and other mining towns eclipsed Central City, undermining its proud boast of being the "Richest Square Mile on Earth." The mining bust crushed St. Mary's ambitious hopes, and the basement of the never completed church was roofed over as a "dug-out" church. Not until 1892 was the present St. Mary's built on the site.
Although not the grand church Father Burion dreamed of, St. Mary's was--and is--Central City's largest church. Contractor/architect Fred W. Paroth of Denver built a native granite and red brick church, ninety by forty-two feet, with Gothic stained glass windows. It seated almost 400 people under a thirty-one-foot-high circular frescoed ceiling. Bishop Nicholas Matz presided at the dedication of the $10,000 brick and stone church with its distinctive corner belfry.
The Central City Weekly Register-Call for November 25, 1892, called the three-story church "an ornament to the city" and "a monument to the liberality of the citizens of Gilpin County." Central City's generosity was also praised by Godfrey Raber, the tall, ascetic-looking Swiss pastor from 1892 to 1898. Father Raber reflected: "Beneath the miner's rough exterior you so very often find a real nobility of soul--a clear mind--a warm heart--just as gold normally lies deep in the earth and the surface indications are mostly deceptive."
Central City's population peaked at 3,114 in 1900. St. Aloysius Academy and the convent, which had been taken over by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1877, once had six sisters teaching 120 students but closed in 1917 for lack of paying pupils. Ten pastors struggled with the dwindling population between 1899 and 1929, when St. Mary's became a mission, attended first from Our Lady of Lourdes in Georgetown and then from St. Thomas Seminary in Denver.
During these trying times, pastors wrote to the bishop in Denver of leaking roofs and broken furnaces in the church, and of the delapidated academy on the hill, which was not torn down until 1936. "The parish is going down hill very fast, hardly a handful of parishioners left," Michael J. Webber reported in a May 28, 1918, letter. A year later, after Father Webber was taken ill to St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, thirty surviving parishioners sent a petition to Bishop Tihen begging him to "try and send a Priest to officiate for the Holy Season of Christmas."
Pioneer parishioners were buried in the large Catholic Cemetery at the head of Eureka Gulch, and few newcomers took their pews in the church that sat deathly quiet. The Central City Catholic Cemetery Records, 1879-1928 in the archdiocesan archives reflect life and death in a mining town. In 1879, for instance, there were thirty-eight burials--eleven of the dead were under one year old, thirty were under thirty-five years of age, and four were "killed in a mine."
Since 1944, St. Mary's has been a mission church with Sunday Masses celebrated by the pastor of St. Paul Church of Idaho Springs. During the 1950s, Helen Bonfils had St. Mary's carefully restored, and Mrs. Spencer Penrose rehabilitated the old rectory as a private residence. The basement foundations of St. Aloysius School have been converted to an overlook. Set into its stone wall is the school's old iron Celtic cross, a monument to Ida Kruse McFarland, a graduate of the school who spearheaded Central City's restoration.
This sturdy church, a monument to Central City's golden age and the archdiocese's first mission and second parish, still overlooks Gregory Gulch, cradle of Colorado's gold rush. Tourists and townsfolk alike still trek up the hill on Sundays to worship in the church called "Central City's Guardian Angel."