The 14,009-foot mountain in the Sawatch Range bears an interesting story that few know in Colorado. The legendary cross made by the snow gives the peak its name. Few doubted the existence of such a peak until it was photographed by the American painter and explorer William Henry Jackson on August 24, 1873.

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William Henry Jackson’s photo of Mt of the Holy Cross (1873, public domain)

Inspired by the cross, Longfellow some years later wrote a poem dedicated to his wife:

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

(If you are curious like I was, the word benedight means blessed.)

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The only stained glass window in the Cathedral which depicts a scene of Colorado. 

Mountains that have crosses as part of their natural beauty don’t just show up everywhere in the world – there certainly are no mountains in Alabama with natural snow crosses at 14,000 feet – so pretty soon Christians were rushing to do pilgrimages to this majestic spot. The Episcopalians beat everyone to it – in 1912, Missionary Bishop Benjamin Brewster made the first pilgrimage to the top of the mountain to gather for the Holy Eucharist. But not for long, as a local Protestant dentist Dr. O.W. Randall teamed up with a Catholic priest Fr. John Carrigan to lead pilgrimages up to Notch Mountain and to have worship services at the top. Pretty soon everyone was hearing about these pilgrimages, and the Denver Post began to promote the famed pilgrimage.

 

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Colorized version of a 1900 photo

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover declared the whole area to be a national monument. Due to the amount of traffic that the pilgrimage site was getting, the Forest Service built a nice trail and an accompanying shelter on top of Notch Mountain in 1933. This historic shelter which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places still exists today almost exactly as it was built.

For awhile, the pilgrimage went strong. After the death of the Denver Post owner Frederick Bonfils in 1933, the promotion of the pilgrimage went stagnant and the last pilgrimage (of that era) was held in 1938, due to a lack of a leading voice to lead the pilgrimage and of course the beginning of World War II the next year. Sadly the area lost its national monument status (Trump was not the first President to do this) because of budgetary concerns from the Forest Service (very few people were going to visit).

Today because of the “14er fever” this mountain has been rediscovered and many people come to Mt of the Holy Cross and accompanying Notch Mountain to see the beauty of the area. The pilgrimage was revived by the small town of Red Cliff in 1976. The pilgrimage is annually done by a small group of pilgrims from Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Vail.

What can we learn from all this? First, it is amazing how the beauty of God draws people to Him. Beauty can be found in all things, but how majestic it is in the mountains of the West. How interesting it is that this beauty invites others to draw others to show what they have found. May God bless the work of the Bonfils family, the Episcopalians, the Forest Service, Dr. O.W. Randall and Fr. John Carrigan who worked very hard to pass this tradition down the generations.

 

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