We love old architecture. We really looooove old architecture. While we were in Bisbee, Arizona, we had plenty of opportunity to take in architecture from the early 1900’s. A very fine example of this is St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Bisbee, Arizona, which was built in 1915.
The history of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church begins after the death of Father Meurer in 1913. French-born Father Constant Mandin was sent to Bisbee to shepherd the growing flock, and he discovered the growing congregation to be literally overflowing from the existing small, wooden church. Parishioners arriving late to Mass often found the building filled, and ended up kneeling in the weeds outside. Father Mandin immediately organized his flock to build a permanent structure, not only large enough to serve the parish, but also worthy of being dedicated to the glory of God.
The land for the new building was donated by Thomas Higgins, a mine owner who held deed to all the land in the area known as Higgins Hill. Previously, Mr. Higgins had donated the land for the three story mission revival edifice known as Loretto School, named for the nuns who taught there, the Sisters of Loretto. Designed by noted architect Henry Trost, it still stands today.
Mr. Higgins made only one stipulation to his donation: The church must face the mountain peaks and Higgins’ mine. With land to build upon, Father Mandin traveled to Los Angeles and hired well-known architect Albert C. Martin (likely on the recommendation of Mr. Higgins, who by this time had moved to Los Angeles and became a real estate developer) to draw plans for the proposed $40,000 edifice. The initial budget was too small to build the church Father Mandin dreamed of raising, and parishioners decided to authorize a staggering debt of $150,000 to fulfill their pastor’s vision.
The finished design envisioned an English Gothic revival basilica style structure, 70 feet wide and 150 feet in length. It featured a high nave and transepts, lower side aisles, and semi-circular apse. Originally, Martin called for a high, square bell tower supported by four piers over the central crossing of nave and transepts. The tower was omitted due to cost though there was hope that it could be added back later. The design documents suggest a 2/3 scale version of St. Begh’s (Bee’s) Church in Whitehaven England which was built in 1868 and has a steep roof, well-lit interiors, and wide naves lined with arcades—all features found in St. Patrick’s. But the resemblance is mostly inside. The Bisbee church’s exterior is medieval looking with reinforced concrete walls and floor framing concealed by a yellow brick and terra cotta face. Inside, stucco covers the walls and the roof is Vermont slate on wood decking braced by timber rafters. (we stepped inside for only one quick shot, as we really did not have any formal permission to take pictures inside the church, and therefore kept our shutter clicks to a minimum out of respect)
St. Patrick’s 41 stained glass windows were designed and produced by Emil Frei, whose work is recognized as an unsurpassed example of Victorian-style stained glass. The Bavarian-born Frei (1869-1942) studied at the Munich Academy of Art before immigrating to the United States in the late 1800s. In 1898 he opened the Emil Frei Art Glass Company in St. Louis, Missouri. Quickly recognized for his talent and skill, Frei received commissions from not only churches but also prominent St. Louis families, including the Busch family of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Frei created his masterpieces from lead crystal glass, painted, detailed and fired to create strong, vibrant, high translucency colors with subtle gradations of hues and textures. Frei’s windows were installed in St. Patrick’s Church in 1916.
On Labor Day 1915, members of the congregation began excavating the hill of rock where the new building would stand. After bone-chilling shifts in the mines, parish men reported to Higgins Hill to work another four hours transforming rock into level ground. Father Mandin often donned work clothes and labored alongside his parishioners and non-Catholic supporters to complete what had become a community project. Finally, on Sunday, September 30, 1917, St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church held its first mass.
The Bisbee Daily Review called it “a work of art and religious zeal with softness of interior, stained glass designs, three graceful and exquisite altars—a majestic and dignified building.” It also came with an $118,000 debt. Multiple fundraisers and dances organized by parish women paid off that debt in just seven years. That’s an amazing accomplishment considering the time period and what $118,000 was then, as compared to now!
Be sure if you visit Bisbee, to take a few moments to walk around and view St. Patrick’s Church at it’s location on Oak Avenue on Higgins Hill in Bisbee, Arizona. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.