Vail Interfaith Chapel began its service 50 years ago on Thanksgiving Day
Much-beloved community landmark remains the spiritual anchor for Vail and a model for interfaith relations
VAIL — On Thanksgiving Day 50 years ago, Vail residents had a special reason to gather in gratitude and celebration.
On that November day back in 1969, dedication ceremonies were held for the Vail Interfaith Chapel. During the past 50 years, numerous denominations have co-existed in the space to conduct regular worship services. Dozens of community groups have gathered within the chapel’s walls, thousands of brides have marched down its main aisle and hundreds of youngsters have gathered at its altar for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
“The Vail chapel provides a spiritual anchor for the town of Vail itself,” said the Rev. Brooks Keith, who arrived Oct. 8, 1995, on a two-year contract to lead the Vail chapel-based Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration. Like many people before him, Brooks found it hard to leave. That two years extended to 10 years and then to 20 years. He has served the community through some of its brightest and darkest days and he is deeply grateful for the Vail pioneers who took time to carve out a place for worship within a bustling ski village.
‘Pickled Eggs for God’
There were church services in Vail before the chapel existed, with local clergy using whatever space they could find.
According to the Vail Interfaith Chapel website, the Vail Religious Foundation was formed in 1963 by a group of full- and part-time area residents to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent structure. But in the early days of Vail, the absence of a church building meant services were often held in local bars.
In her book “Vail: Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley,” author June Simonton detailed some early Vail worship stories. She could relate tales from personal experience because her husband —The Rev. Don Simonton — created Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran congregation in the Vail community.
“Before the building of the Interfaith Chapel, Catholics celebrated Mass at The Casino in the stale air left over from Saturday night ski patrol parties. Protestants worshiped along bent straws and dirty glasses in the Golden Ski Room at The Lodge,” wrote Simonton.
“Father Thomas Stone used to clear the bar off at The Red Lion on Sunday and he would do Mass right there because he knew everyone from Vail would already be there. And they were,” Keith said.
Such conditions were hardly ideal for spiritual contemplation, but the various religious leaders in town knew they had a building conundrum.
“They realized that no one congregation would ever be able to afford their own space in Vail. That’s where it started from,” said the Rev. Tim Wilbanks, current president of the Vail Religious Foundation. Wilbanks has served the Covenant Presbyterian Church for the past 11 years.
Vail Associates, as the ski company was known back then, donated the ground for the chapel. At the time, the site was on the west end of town but it was prime real estate nonetheless, situated right next to Gore Creek. A two-year fundraising effort began and in 1968, a chapel groundbreaking ceremony was celebrated. Today, there is a picture from that day prominently placed near the entryway at the Vail chapel.
“First of all, construction of the Vail chapel was out of necessity,” Keith said. “They also built it ridiculously large for its time and I am totally amazed at how visionary the people were who built this first chapel.”
That vision caught fire in the 1960s-era Vail community.
“When religious groups began fundraising for the chapel, a bartender at Donovan’s Copper Bar put jars of his homemade pickled eggs out on the bar, labeled them ‘Pickled Eggs for God,’ and raised enough money to donate a pew,” wrote Simonton.
Time to be thankful
There is something deeply fitting about the first service at the chapel being the 1969 Eagle Valley Community Thanksgiving Service.
The Nov. 20, 1969 edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise informed residents about the event, noting Father Stone and Rev. Simonton would be conducting the dedication service.
“The Interfaith Chapel was constructed through donations of residents and visitors to the ski village, Vail,” the Enterprise reported.
According to the Vail Interfaith Chapel website, there was a packed house at the Thanksgiving service. Among the worshipers were Rev. Simonton’s sons Cliff and Denny,
“I am sure I was there, but I don’t remember the event especially,” said Cliff Simonton. “I was about 11 or 12 years old at the time and I didn’t think what Dad was doing was all that interesting. We were busy fishing and riding horses.”
His brother Denny concurred. But when he visits the Vail chapel, he always enjoys seeing the ground-breaking photo near the entrance. Rev. Simonton, clad in his pastor robes, is one of the people wielding a shovel.
While they don’t recall the chapel opening, the Simonton boys do recall spending a lot of non-worship time at the site.
“The chapel, at that time, was in kind of a lonely place on the west end of town,” Cliff Simonton said. “In those early days, there was an ice rink right behind the chapel and I remember playing broom hockey there.”
Like the religious leaders who serve at the chapel today, the Simontons credit the people of their father’s and mother’s generation who thought big and made the project happen.
“You just had so many people in Vail at that time who were get-it-done types of folks,” Cliff Simonton said.
“Dad was particularly good and building support for that type of thing,” Denny Simonton said, adding with a chuckle that “bottom line is Vail, at that time, was filled with young heathen skiers who needed religion bad. Those people know who they are.”
Five decades of service
The Vail Interfaith Chapel now enters its sixth decade of service as a much-beloved community landmark. But it’s a living landmark, stressed the chapel clergy.
“I think a lot of people see the chapel as a place they know they can come in and be quiet and celebrate their faith in an intimate way,” Wilbanks said.
Today, six congregations — B’nai Vail, St. Patrick Catholic Parish, Covenant Presbyterian, The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran and Trinity Baptist Church conduct worship services at the space. Beyond the chapel walls, those congregations offer mountaintop services and community assistance. They also share their chapel home with numerous community groups who meet at the space.
“You have more AA meetings at this chapel than at all the other chapels put together,” Keith said.
Those other buildings are a testament to the Vail chapel’s success — it spurred creation of the Beaver Creek and Edwards interfaith chapels.
No one really knows how many weddings have been celebrated at the Vail chapel, but Wilbanks estimates the number is in the 3,500 range. “It’s at least that and it’s probably more,” he said.
Along with those happy occasions, the Vail chapel has served the community during tragic times.
“When 9/11 happened, we put it on the radio that the chapel planned a service and we had 700 people there in two hours,” Keith said.
Keith will never forget sharing that day with one man who arrived at the chapel doorstep.
“A group of golfers from New Jersey came in on the morning of 9/11 and one of the guys was hysterically beside himself,” Keith said. “His son was in one of the towers and he had been talking to his mother, the man’s wife, on the phone when the plane hit and the call was cut off.”
Keith led the group in a prayer, asking that the man’s son would find God’s will for him that day. The young man ended up running from the site and he survived the tragedy. His father made a pledge to Keith that day. “He promised he would never miss Sunday church again in his life, in gratitude.”
What lies ahead?
There isn’t a specific Thanksgiving service to mark the anniversary, but the chapel will celebrate its 50th year of service during the next 12 months with special events and a fundraising campaign.
“Our big emphasis is going to be on a campaign to make sure we have enough in reserves to make sure the chapel has another 50 years,” Wilbanks said. In particular, the chapel’s original shake shingle roof needs to be replaced.
“We are looking forward to the next 50 years and making sure that people will still experience the heartbeat of Vail that is still present through this chapel’s ministry,” Wilbanks said.
“It’s hard for me to say what the next 50 years will bring. The reason why is it so hard is because religion itself in America is changing,” Keith said.
He hopes the Vail interfaith model will find broader appeal as people of faith focus more on what unites them than on what divides them.
Keith noted last year, when a gunman murdered 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, B’nai Vail held a special service that drew both Christians and Jews to the Vail chapel pews.
“That’s what I hope we are still doing, 50 years from now,” Keith said.
He also offered a pragmatic prediction.
“I don’t think we are going to be building other worship centers in Vail. The chapel will still be the only true, spiritual worship center in Vail,” Keith said. “It’s incredibly special to be part of that community.”
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