Interview with FR. JAMES A. MAHRER (Ma-hair), O.S.B.
(May 20, 1902 – April 5, 1997)
INTERVIEWER (unknown) - embolden…
Father James was born in Forman, North Dakota May 20, 1902 and studied at the Assumption Abbey, in Richardson, North Dakota and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
He came as a young man (1925) to join his fortunes with Holy Cross Abby in Canon City, when the Canon City Abby was just then starting out as an independent religious community. Here he finished his studies and was ordained a priest on June 15, 1930.
(Wet Mtn Tribune 12.12.91)... He first served as procurator of the Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, and from 1935-36 was assistant at St. Mary’s Church in Pueblo. From 1936-40, he was assistant in Longmont and served as pastor there from 1940-59. He then was again named procurator of the Abbey, and served as chaplain at St Joseph Hospital in Florence from 1964-65. He took over the administration of the Assumption Parish in Westcliffe on July 1, 1965.
The great depression had begun in the autumn of 1929 and Holy Cross was in a precarious financial condition. Fr. James was soon entrusted with the important position of Procurator of the Monastery. With little money to carry on the operations and with a low enrollment in the Abby School, which was owing to the hard times abounding, Fr. James succeeded in spite of the handicaps keeping the institution going throughout the worst of the troubled years.
In 1935 he was sent to St Mary’s parish in Pueblo, whose aging Pastor - Fr. Zerile (SP) Ztupan, needed a steady hand of a young and vigorous assistance. When Fr. James was sent to Longmont in 1936, the parishioners of St Mary’s were reluctant to loose their zealous young assistant pastor and they petitioned the Abby Superior to leave Fr. James in Pueblo. But the needs of St John’s in Longmont outweighed those of St. Mary’s and the change was made. He came to Longmont on January 15, 1936, as assistant to Fr. Justin McKernan. When Fr. Justin was transferred to Canon City in 1940, Fr. James succeeded him in Longmont as Pastor from 1940-1959. The Pastor had been struggling with a heavy debt through the depression. It was Fr. James’ task to get that debt paid and it was said that he worked with a will to get the parish on a firm financial footing. He received excellent co-operation from the parishioners and before long the fruits of his hard work and the parishioners sacrifices became evident. Gradually the debts were paid, funds were accumulated for improving the Church, School and Rectory… and neighboring property was purchased for future expansion.
In 1959, Fr. James returned to the Canon City Abby as Business Manager. A lot of his work at that time involved repairing the rotting foundation of the Monastery. He said the front of the building had dropped 9 inches when piles were exposed by a change in the water table and became rotten. (“…too many stuck their nose in my business” , and he moved on. Pueblo Chieftain, 12/16/84) After serving as Business Manager at the Abby, he went to Bennet Hill Academy, as Chaplain, in Colorado Springs and later was Chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital in Florence. He asked for a reassignment in Westcliffe and was awarded that prize in 1965. The prize had a lot of problems, however, including just keeping warm. That first winter, Fr. James, lived in the kitchen because the old cold range there was the only source of heat for the building.
Fr. let’s talk first about… go way back and talk about how it was that your Father and your Uncle came to ah move from Iowa way back in the early days.
Fr. James: When the State of North Dakota was opened up for homesteading, my dad, Henry, and his brother Matthew, left Iowa for Dakota. They worked in two farms near Wofferton ( SP), North Dakota, then they went to Sargen (SP) County, homesteaded, then they claimed for homesteading. That time there were no settlers within 30 miles. Farther North Dakota was about the closest and Wofferton, North Dakota. They left Iowa in a wagon and a team of oxen, ˝ barrel of salt pork, ˝ barrel of flour and 50 cents in their pocket. There was no lumber close by so they built a sod shanty. They had to go to the Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota. to get rafters for the roof. For a number of years they struggle. They dug 26 wells to get sufficient water for the oxen & cooking facilities. They could not use any water for bathing, because all those 26 wells furnished about 3 cans of water - pales of water. After a number of years they decided to get married. They went to Greenwall, Minnesota, to see – and saw Fr. Soonbush (SP)… if there were any girls available for marriage. (This is your Dad and your Uncle?) My Dad. So Fr. said yes, there is a family down the line here by the name of Collsters (SP). They have 18 children. So the priest took them down and Mr. Collsters said yes, Catherine is of age and time to get married. So Dad looked at Catherine and Catherine looked at Dad and decided OK. The next day they were married. (The next day?) Yea.
My Uncle Mat decided to get married also, so he was directed to the Clamer family and he married Anna about the same year. They moved back to the Dakota’s and slowly built sufficient money to build a frame building. During that time of the sod shanty where they lived for the first few number of years, the Indians from Sioux Reservations used to come around the building, about 60 of them on horses, and circle the little shanty. Dad would be in working out in the field plowing with a pair of oxen, when he saw the Indians coming, he unhitched the oxen and left for the home. He knew what the Indians wanted. That day, Dad used to chew tobacco. He’d had a long plug (pipe?) with about 10-12 inches long, bout 3” wide and about an inch thick. He handed it to the Chief, and each one along the line took a chew of the tobacco. There was a little left for the Chief to try to give it to Dad. Dad said no thank you. And after they left, Dad said after all those boys took a bite of that plug, I wouldn’t even consider it to chew the rest of it. So they settled, Dad and Mother, had 8 children, 4 boys and 4 girls… 50-50. And my Uncle Mat was hoping to duplicate the same number. He had 8 children but he had 5 boys and 3 girls.
We youngster after a number of years, a school was built… teachers hired. 56 children, with 8 grades and one teacher. She taught all these youngsters equal to the present day education in our modern schools. When they (#96) enrolled an examination you could read it, because we had Palmer Penmanship education. We had the Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Spelling and the 8th grade youngsters would consider practically equal to the Junior and Sophomore High School today. We walked round trip, 5 miles, to the country little school. In the winter times, because it ranged 10 to 50 below zero, Dad would come up… or come to… pick us up if there was a storm or 30-40 below, otherwise we walk ____________to me. We worked on the farm and after a number of years, I went to a farm ? in North Dakota for Public School education. I graduated there, then I worked at the Hurly Brothers Mercantile store. I was getting a wage of $150, at that time, per month, plus board and room and use of their car as a collate and ozate. I was getting a salary way above the President of a bank. After graduating from High School I went to Richardson North Dakota to attend the Assumption Abby College. The Monastery after a number of years went bankrupt. After the bankruptcy of the College and Monastery, I left for St John’s University in 1925. There a number of years, a call came from Colorado from the Benedictine Priory of Pueblo for candidates to the priesthood. Fr. Augustine LaMarche, later my assistance for 7 years, we talked it over and especially since the Klu Klux Klan was very active in Colorado… & Gov. Morallee and the Senate and Representatives tried to enact a law forbidding Sacramental Wine which really would deprive a Catholic priest of saying the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We then decided that’s a good place to fight. We asked Abbot Elklin, the President of the University… and he discouraged us. The more he discouraged us the more we decided to leave.
So I arrived at the Abby in 1925, entered the novitiate and made my vows, triple vows - obedience, chastity and poverty for three years. I figured well, first of all I didn’t really didn’t have a desire to become a priest. I thought after 3 vows I can always get out. But after 3 vows were up, I had to make solemn vows or leave. Well, still I could get out after solemn vows. And we got to Sub-Deaconship, which is now eliminated, I still could get out. Finally Deaconship and Priesthood, and I was ordained in June 15, 1930. (60 years ago). I was immediately appointed Business Manager, which is also known as Procurator of Holy Cross Abby. The financial condition… we were practically a million dollars in debt. Abbot Seprin (Cyprian or Zupan ?) was elected in 1965, had to resign because of heavy financial troubles. Fr. Leonard Schwinn of St. Paul’s Church, Chicago, was appointed Administrator. After 3 years, he decided not to renew his administrationship. But during those years we got the Abby solvent. Then Fr. Abbot… Fr. Leonard Schwinn of Assisisin, Kansas was appointed Administrator. Since the Abby was solvent, I was sent to Pueblo, St. Mary’s Church, to help Fr. Zupan, Cyril Zupan, to help along with his financial conditions _______ serious conditions, then later on in 12/6/35, I was sent to Longmont, which was the heaviest debited parish in the state. After 5 years, or 1945, I paid off the debt of nearly a hundred thousand dollars. I bought about $75,000 worth of property, renovated the old church, school, and also had charge of the missions - Frederick and Mead, Colorado.
I built the church in Frederick in 1928 for $9,000. Now it’s appraised at $90,000. I designed that building and it’s one of the first mission churches built. In 1945, I asked the Archbishop there to create Frederick a parish and meet it’s mission. Fr. Martin, my assistant… I told the Bishop I would prefer that he would be appointed Pastor, and he was appointed Pastor in 1945. I worked at Longmont parish for a number of years, then in `55 the Administrator or the Abbot wished me to come to the Abby to be the Procurator or Business Manager. After the heavy debt ………… buildings in need of repair, I spent nearly 90-100 thousand dollars in repair. I told them to close the school because they are going heavily in debt. 80-90 thousand dollars in debt. …… of a school. Since he got rid of quite a few parishes, the apple orchard of 60 acres, the vinegar works, (#193)……vinegar works, I ….submitted that we cannot keep on. Oh yes, he said, we can. I said OK, you take it over, I want to get out of this condition or position, I want a Chaplainry or a small Parish. I was then appointed to Chaplaincy of Bennet Hill Academy in Colorado Springs. Like the Abbot’s brother wanted the job of Chaplaincy, so I was transferred back to Florence, Colorado. Fr. Lambert… (you were at the Hospital Father in Florence?) Hospital at Florence, St. Joseph Hospital.
The Abbot came down one day and said Fr. Lambert wants a job. He might as well have it he got the same foul obedience as I have. He said, well if he doesn’t get any leave… I said for God’s sake, give it to him. I don’t want to be responsible for any man leaving the Monastery on my (account) desire to have a place. So he tried to appoint me to St. Scholastic Academy in Canon City. I said like heck you will. You kick me out of one Academy you’re not going to kick me out of another Academy. Give me Westcliffe, Colorado. Nobody wants that (“no one else wanted Westcliffe” – Wet Mountain Tribune 12/20/84). At that time it was a mission from Canon City Holy Cross Abby. Abbot Leonard [Schwinn] was appointed Administrator and thereby he could not attend to their obligation, so he had different men of the Abby to work at Westcliffe. Fr. Maruis Zabolitsky was appointed Pastor for a few years. Then it went back to the old missionary ways. In 1965, I was then appointed by the Bishop, [Charles] Buswell of Pueblo, Administrator of The Lady of the Assumption Church in Westcliffe. When I came here I knew the condition. Living quarters was nil. I lived in the kitchen for the winter. That is the only heat I had – an old coal and electric range. Margaret Locarnini and Clara Reida furnished me with wood at winter. Gradually I worked and got the place in shape. With the good kindness and generosity of the Viola brothers, Ray and James of Penrose, furnished all the lumber, the doors, the part of the partitions for the second floor which was a large hall used by the Parish for the Altar Society and the dance hall. (This is upstairs of the Rectory?) Above the Rectory. (Right) There was no inside stairway, stairway on the North side and the South side of the building. After while, I got the things organized.
The begging and so forth from friends from Longmont helped me. Two people that were steadfast in helping me here, when I came here as a pioneer – Franz and Anna Dietrich. They took care of the Altars and so forth. Franz(?) ran the errands. So gradually we got things organized, remodeled the house and the Church. As years went on the lightning struck the building, years gone by… the tower was on fire, was leaning. Therefore I… Dick Brady helped tear the old part of the tower down. The bell, (originally in the Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Silver Park) I tried to keep up there, but the reinforcement was not sufficient to support the bell anymore. So I dropped the bell, a 900 pound bell. It went down into the ground 22 inches. The congregation of course, and especially the good ole ladies said we want that bell. I said someday I’ll have a bell for you. So then we started the shrine here, which is also known as the Bell Tower in 1973. Jim Christoff, Dona Geroux and Frank Schneider, and Ed Knobbe were the builders, or helped build it. I designed the building. We had just about half the building up, when I mentioned to Jim don’t we need a permit? Oh Yes. So I sent him down to the hall. Word came back… I had to have an architect, the weight of the bells, the side of the buildings. I said go to hell. I told Jim, here we keep on going, because we practically finished the tower and then I got the permit.
It was dedicated later on by Abbot (Leonard) Schwinn, I think in about 1974 and of course the bell was put in. The chimes were donated by Frances Byrne, in memory of her husband, Shorty Byrne. Then the renovation of the church, interior and exterior, the stuccoing of the buildings, the painting of the ceiling, the paneling – first paneling was installed. Glass doors, doubled set of glass doors, $3,000 donated by my brother George. In 1986, we started building the Center. The contract was given to the American Builders of Colorado Springs. The price, the contract was $47,135. Total with interior was $54,898. The insurance agency appraised it over $100,000. Going back to the renovation of the church and rectory, when I came we had no heat except in the kitchen. Shorty Burns [Debby Senderauf’s Dad], of the L&B Gas - owner, asked if he could install a butane furnace in the rectory. I said Shorty, that’s fine, but I haven’t got enough money. He said, I’ll take care of that, don’t worry. He donated that and the same year we put a butane furnace in the church. That was 1970, and that was donated by Mr. & Mrs. Edward Knobbe. The Center was started in 1986, I designed the building and at the present time we used it for different functions.
(Father, this point I might like to try for the sake of the record, give a kind of a schedule, an outline of the Parish itself since it was founded in Silver Cliff. Early records that we’ve been able to dig up, indicate that Assumption Parish was organized around 1870 in Silver Cliff and one source says that the first Pastor was a Father – a Rev. F.C. Bigelow. The church was located in Silver Cliff on Dewalt Street, between Broadway and 1st Street, until a feud developed between the parishioners in Silver Cliff and the parishioners in Westcliffe. The Westcliffe people wanted to move the Church over here. So sort of as a compromise apparently, the church was not moved to Westcliffe proper, it was kind of moved half way. They moved it to a site on Hwy 69 and Hermit Road, approximately where the Westcliffe Inn is now built. The church was moved again to its present location in Westcliffe, in 1929. Eight – 1928. Besides Fr. Bigelow, the first Pastor that we could find any evidence of, some of the early priest included, Fr. Robert Servant, and then a Fr. Joseph Brunner, after him came a Fr. (Edward) Berkemeyer and then from 1927 to 1965 you mentioned awhile ago that we had a series of rotating visiting priest from the Holy Cross Abby in Canon City, except for two years in `51 and `52 when Fr. Maurius Zabolitsky , how do you pronounce that? Jab-o-lit-ski. …served as a full time Pastor. So that’s kind of a chronology of where the church has been located. It’s been moved twice, from Silver Cliff to, I would call Middlecliffe and then to Westcliffe in 1928 or `29. Then Fr. James came to Westcliffe to the parish n `65, so you’ve been here for twenty five years. Twenty five years. Father I was wondering, I know the answer to this, but maybe you might want to talk about whose been… up until two or three years ago, you were still doing all your work here. You were washing your clothes, you were cutting the lawn, shoveling the snow and as we record this conversation today, you’re 88 yrs old, so you were doing all these things still to the ripe old age of 85 or so, 86. Whose been giving you a hand lately, whose….
I been very fortunate having Jim Christoff in the Parish and he is now the President of the Board. And _________ Sylvester here and Myron Tassin, Sec of the Board. Jim, about two years ago, said Father we just have to eliminate a good deal of your work. But going back a few years before then, Jim was always rather helpful. He said Father, we have only one outlet of water to irrigate to the street to the front lawn. There was no lawn here when I came, very few trees. He said we need a sprinkling system. I said that’s fine Jim, but you better find out how much the installation of the irrigation would be, because I don’t think you can get enough money together, because I haven’t got it here. He said well, we’ll try, so I think it was Elaine_____________ (Lindy Gardens, Canon City gave estimate) that said the sprinkler system was_______ out and gave him an estimate. Manhole was $600, tapping was around $500. The sprinkling system was a little better than $3500, total was over $5,000. I said Jim, you can’t get it. He went around collecting from the good souls around here. He collected the whole amount except $50. I said go ahead Jim. So after of about 2 years ago, Jim said, I’ll take care of the lawns and I said OK you can become supervisor of the whole plant, and in charge of the Center too. So he and the Piquetts [Bud & sons] take care of the winter shoveling of the snow. We have a snow blower here... Jim enjoys running it. We have a $4,000 mowing machine, so he enjoys mowing the lawn here. So Jim is kind of a handy man all around for me. If I didn’t have Jim here to do all this work, my tender age would not permit to do the work.
(That’s very good Father. Ah, you notice in the conversation, I noticed in the conversation that finances are always a very important part of your ah, of your background. How did you get so involved in finances. Did you have an aptitude for mathematics? Or ah, how did you get involved in that particular part of…) At St. John University, I majored in Mathematics and there were about 30-40 in the class and I enjoyed the Mathematics and then of course the good ole pals wanted copies, so fine, I gave them my copies. Prof Fr. Gilbert thought I was cheating and copying from them. OK I’ll show you. So I solved the problem in different ways. I kept my original and handed out copies of different translation to the friends. So finally Fr. Gilbert realized that I was not cheating. I entered practically all Mathematic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Mathematic Analysis and Calculus and so forth. I was one of the highest rated students in Mathematics in St. John’s University. Before then, going back to my childhood, teenage years, I worked at a mercantile store and I got a little knowledge of business and as time went on, been the manager in the Abby and so forth. They gave me good knowledge of finances. I had a fair knowledge of stocks and bonds, and also the different investment organizations so that all that knowledge helped me in administrating in parishes in the Abby.
Thank you Father. Father, one final question. Ah, you’re 88 years old and still in really good health. To what do you attribute your longevity, your long healthy life. What can we learn from you that might help us? Obedience to my parents, hard work, the forth Commandment - it says honor thy Father and Mother and that’s the only Commandment that has a promise of long life, so the good Lord has been good to me in that regard. I love my parents. I was always obedient to them... and obedient to my Superiors. The only place I asked for in my priestly life was Westcliffe. Otherwise I was always sent to places that my Superior desired to have me.
And Father when you came here the Sunday collections weren’t very large I don’t presume? That was a point the Abbot mentioned… I asked him. What’s the income? Oh he said, it’s about $200 a Sunday. So I said, Oh well that’s peanuts, I can handle that alright. With the Sunday collections, I made $25, $30, $35. So I thought, next time I saw the Abbot, about 3-4 months later, I said you’re for sure a liar. (laughter) He said, what now, you said there’s $200 a Sunday, I’ll be damn lucky if I get $200 a month. So now I’m doing very well. I don’t have to preach money.
As a parishioner, I’d like to add that he does it, he’s always telling the young families and the seniors to take care of their own needs first before they give to the church, but the more he says that, the more people give. And on that note, I’d like to close this interview. Thank you very much Father.