Lifelong Silverton resident and former mayor Gerald Swanson recalls the building of the Christ of the Mines Shrine 50 years ago
By Mark Esper
The 50th anniversary of the Christ of the Mines Shrine overlooking Silverton brings back memories for lifelong Silverton resident Gerald Swanson.
The anniversary was observed Wednesday evening (too late for this week’s newspaper).
Swanson was a member of the St. Patrick’s Men’s Club that conceived the idea and pulled it off a half century ago.
“There were about 12 of us” in the club, Swanson recalled. He said they were inspired by the church’s pastor, Father Halloran.
“Father Halloran was a builder. He was a doer. He was like St. Joseph — a real carpenter,” Swanson said.
The idea for the shrine originated with a miner named Lee Lopez, Swanson recalled.
“He worked at the Idarado,” Swanson said. “The rest of the mines were about down.”
Swanson said Lopez was a devout Catholic.
“He said, ‘you know, we ought to do something,’” Swanson recalled. “We wanted to do something in honor of Christ. It’s not like we were looking for a miracle. I said ‘why not go up to Anvil Mountain?’”
Swanson said he, Lopez, Jose Gonzalez and Fred Manzanaro headed up to find a spot suitable for the shrine.
“We staked it off — seven lots, I think,” Swanson said. He said he then went to the county commissioners, one of whom, Herman Dalla, was his uncle. The commissioners agreed to donate the land.
“They said ‘we’ll give it to you guys, if you’re serious,’” Swanson said.
At the time, Nora and Ward Barlow were dismantling the old stone Silverton Brewery building that used to sit along U.S. 550 to the west of the wye.
“Barlow said ‘we’ll give you all the stone you want,’” Swanson recalled.
As for hauling the rock up the hill, they turned to Pat Willis.
“Pat Willis had a trucking company. He had six trucks that weren’t hauling ore from the mines. He donated a truck and the fuel,” Swanson said. “That was really generous. The town was really hurt.”
By this time, the whole community was getting involved, Swanson said, with the Italian element particularly excited about it.
“The Italians pitched in. They knew how to handle stone,” Swanson said.
“We got it (the stone) all up there are started stockpiling it,” Swanson said. “We dug the footing by hand.
He said the Circle Route Garage owner, a Mr. Purcell, helped build a steel frame on which the statue would sit. The statue itself would be coming from Carrara, Italy, famed as the source of marble for Michelangelo’s David statue.
As work proceeded on the pedestal for the statue, Swanson said Buzz McVeigh, a local artist, painted a cutout of the statue on plywood, and that was put up.
“So all of a sudden it started to take shape,” Swanson said. “It was a community affair. We asked other churches and they helped. We raised enough to pay for the statue — $6,000 and freight.”
The statue was shipped into Galveston, Texas, and trucked up to Silverton.
“We had everything ready. The fire whistle went off in town and up the highway comes this big old long trailer,” Swanson said. The statue’s arms arrived on a separate truck.
“It was really a holiday. The town crew and the county crew headed up there. We used a steam shovel to hoist it into place. We hooked on to the torso of Christ, and my uncle Herman, he started to lift that baby right out of the truck.”
The arms were then attached, “and there it set. Fire sirens went off in town again. It was dusk. Everybody came up driving and shining their lights on it. That was really a celebration day.”
Swanson said “it wasn’t too long after that we had a Lions Club meeting” in which an important announcement was made.
A uranium mining company was purchasing the Sunnyside Mine and planning to dig the American Tunnel, reviving mining in the San Juans.
“Boy, that was like an answer,” Swanson said. “We didn’t think much of it as a miracle, but after a while …
“We needed something and all at once we got a miracle.”
And Swanson recalled the Aug 24, 1959 dedication of the shrine.
“It rained all day, and then right at 3 o’clock it lifted. It was like someone pulled the curtain back.”
The next addition to the shrine was the grove of trees behind it. Swanson said it was the brainchild of the new priest, Father Joseph McGuinnes.
Swanson said the Forest Service agreed to donate 1,000 Scotch pine seedlings. Volunteers did the rest the next spring. But skeptics doubted trees could survive on barren Anvil Mountain.
“We had a hundred people up there planting trees,” Swanson said.
“We had a watering detail three times a week. We had 50-gallon barrels. We did that for about a month and a half. Then the rains came.”
Even so, there was a lot of doubt if the trees would be alive after that first winter.
“In the spring, there they were, all bright, waving at us,” Swanson said. “Lee Lopez said ‘See, I told you. God was gonna let us grow those things.’”
A third “miracle” attributed to the shrine is the June 1978 disaster at the Gold King, when Lake Emma burst through the mine in an epic flash flood.
Amazingly, no one was at work at the time, and thus no one was killed or injured.
Swanson noted the event happened on a Sunday evening, but even so, usually some workers would have been there.
“This was unreal. Usually they had them (repair crews) in there on weekends.”