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Little Church on the Colorado Prairie

St. Mary's Orthodox Church lies on grassy slopes south of the Black Forest in eastern Colorado. Photograph from November 1983. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Two historic Orthodox churches rise from the shortgrass prairie in eastern Colorado five miles north of Calhan. The humble churches—St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s—were built by Slovak immigrants in the early 20th century.

The area was settled by Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Romanians, and a few Russians escaping the bleak economies of the war-torn Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. These immigrants came, like immigrants today, to find a better and more secure life. They worked in Colorado’s coal and silver mines, steel mills, and began farming and ranching. Many homesteaded in eastern Colorado, finding the plains much like the steppes of their homelands.

After sowing the fields, the famers and their families planted an Orthodox Church named St. Michael’s on top of a rounded hillock in 1905. It burned down in 1927 and another church was built in its place. A “small feud” led to the congregation breaking apart and the leavers erected another building lower on the hill and called it St. Mary’s. Both were finished in 1932.

After their respective completions, the groups made up and decided to reunite at St. Mary’s Church. Both are historic buildings, although the upper one is rarely used and is now referred to as the “brown church.”

In early November 1983 I photographed St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, now called St. Mary’s Holy Dormition Orthodox Church, for a magazine article written by Larry Haise. In this land of evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans, it seemed odd that an Orthodox church populated by eastern European immigrants was flourishing on the high plains.

Father Paul Fedec, the priest from 1956 to 1992, said Orthodoxy was a “hard times” faith and that it appealed to independent folks who resisted, even in Europe, the encroachment of government on church. The church, he said, thrived because it was the center of life for its congregants who ate, socialized, danced the polka, and upheld cultural traditions there. Father Paul lived in Denver, working as a financial manager at Martin Marietta, and driving 80 miles to Calhan at least twice a week to minister to his flock.

I particularly liked photographing the old hilltop cemetery with wooden crosses and tombstones etched with Slavic names like Mikita, Pylypczuk, Volosin, Trojanovich, and Hlatki.

I haven’t been out to that lonely hilltop since 1983. Maybe one day I’ll pack the camera bag and head out there to reshoot the little church on the prairie under the lonely sky.

Photos below: (Left) Father Paul Fedec, the priest at St. Mary's Orthodox Church, invokes the Almighty during a Sunday service in November 1983. (Top Right) The old burying ground on the north side of St. Michael's Church, the "Brown Church," atop a deserted hilltop in eastern Colorado. Photograph shot on TriX in November 1983. (Bottom Right) The "Brown Church," the old St. Michael's parish, is a landmark church in eastern Colorado. Photograph shot in November 1983. All Photograph © Stewart M. Green

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