Discovered in a file cabinet, a bronze relic may be a key to unlocking mysteries of Spanish history in Colorado

click to enlarge Howard Delaney, pastor monsignor emeritus at Christ - the King Catholic Church in Pueblo, with the artifact that - was left in his possession four decades ago. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GRAND VALLEY RANGER DISTRICT
  • Photo courtesy of the Grand Valley Ranger District
  • Howard Delaney, pastor monsignor emeritus at Christ the King Catholic Church in Pueblo, with the artifact that was left in his possession four decades ago.

A bronze relic that Colorado historians feared was lost long ago and may prove a key piece of state history has been found by Howard Delaney, a 94-year-old Catholic monsignor in Pueblo.

Possibly part of a 17th-century religious processional cross, the artifact is decorated with religious and military images of the Vision of King Constantine, as well as an armor breastplate similar to those used by the Spanish, and a cross with a crown encircling it. It is nearly 5 inches long and a little more than an inch wide.

The relic had originally been unearthed in 1961 at the base of the Grand Mesa near Grand Junction, about five miles from the northern branch of the Old Spanish Trail on the Western Slope. The route was traveled by Spanish explorers and missionaries centuries ago.

It had been missing for decades, and curators at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction had been searching for the piece or clues to its disappearance for three years.

"To find the piece of cross is incredibly interesting to us; it could be one of the earliest Spanish artifacts in Colorado," said Dave Bailey, curator of history at the museum, upon learning from the Independent it is safely in the hands of Monsignor Delaney. "I thought it was one of those things, you never see it again.

"I'm so happy this is just so amazing to be found."

And what transpired over 45 years since the relic was lost is a remarkable story in itself.

17th-century style

It was April 1 April Fool's Day, as Calvin Clark's mom Anita notes in 1961. After celebrating her son's eighth birthday, she, her husband Keith, Cal, his sister and an elderly cousin went out to walk off dinner and look for arrowheads. They were on land now owned by Catholic nuns, at the base of the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.

The land was rocky, dotted with sagebrush, and they walked above a creek where Ute Indians, Spanish explorers and mountaineers camped centuries ago.

Anita Clark spotted what she thought was a piece of scrap metal and kicked it. The piece was made of bronze, blackened by age and exposure. She and her family immediately recognized that the symbols on the piece were religious, though they could not determine the origin.

click to enlarge Dave Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of Western - Colorado, says the old relic may be one of the earliest - artifacts left in Colorado by Spanish explorers or - missionaries. - COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF WESTERN COLORADO
  • Courtesy of the Museum of Western Colorado
  • Dave Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of Western Colorado, says the old relic may be one of the earliest artifacts left in Colorado by Spanish explorers or missionaries.

"It looked like it had Catholic emblems on it," says Clark, now 80. "We took it over to our neighbors ... they were Catholic, and we figured they would know what it was."

The piece of metal was sent to Father John Sierra, a priest in Pueblo. According to a Sept. 1, 1961 story in the Southern Colorado Register, the official Catholic paper of the Diocese of Pueblo, Sierra recognized the potential importance of the find. He contacted the curator of the Taylor Museum at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs, who recommended the piece be sent to Beatrice Gilman Proske. At the time, Proske was a curator at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City and a leading authority on Spanish sculpture.

"It is indeed an interesting object, and the style is that of the 17th-century Spanish work," Proske wrote. "The scene at the top is the Vision of Constantine. What its use may have been I do not know."

The Southern Colorado Register noted that another curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Stephen V. Grancsay, was also consulted. "So far as I can see," Grancsay wrote, "this does not have anything to do with armor or horse trappings. It is possible that it may be an applied band from a processional cross."

The Southern Colorado Register article speculated that the icon could be traced to the 1776 expedition of Catholic priests Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez. They and their party may have been the first European explorers to make maps and record details of the interior West. It described their expedition through western Colorado in 1776, and profiled Constantine, the 4th-century Roman emperor depicted on the bronze casting. Legend holds that Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Western world whose image often appeared on 17th-century Spanish and European materials, had a vision of a fiery cross in the sky, shortly before a victorious battle.

The story concluded with this question: "At present, it is impossible to establish the indisputable authenticity of this metal casting as a relic of the Escalante expedition, possibly the processional crucifix which was used when meeting and preaching to the Indians. But how else is it possible to explain the presence in this area of a 17th-century Spanish bronze casting with a religious motif?"

In an interview, before learning of the find last week, Anita Clark said that after receiving the relic, Father Sierra had contacted her and asked if he could come for a visit. He wondered whether she would be able to revisit the spot of her find for additional clues.

"But then he had a heart attack and died," she said. "We don't know where [the artifact] is now."

Guessed Cal Clark, now 53: "I think it just got passed around, and eventually ended up on the East Coast, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We had no idea of the value of it."

The same jagged break

On June 20, Howard Delaney, pastor emeritus monsignor of Christ the King Church in Pueblo, looked at the front page of his Denver Post. He immediately recognized the bronze relic prominently pictured alongside the headline, "Quest for Colorado's Spanish Cross." And he knew exactly where it was: sitting in a drawer in his file cabinet.

Delaney, however, was puzzled by the claim that his old friend and colleague, Father Sierra, was long dead.

click to enlarge The relic was safely nestled in tissue paper inside an old - cardboard Wilkinson Publishing Company greeting card - box. - PHOTO BY MARY MEISSNER
  • Photo by Mary Meissner
  • The relic was safely nestled in tissue paper inside an old cardboard Wilkinson Publishing Company greeting card box.

"I have no idea how [the Clark family] got the story about the priest who had a heart attack," he says.

In fact, Father Sierra is preparing to celebrate his 90th birthday on Aug. 14, at the seminary of the order of the Sons of the Holy Family in Silver Spring, Md.

In a telephone interview, Father Sierra says he remembers the bronze relic, as well as the 1961 newspaper article describing the potential significance of the discovery. However, the aging priest only vaguely recalls showing it to a curator at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and could not provide details of why his interest in the piece faded.

In 1969, after working in Pueblo for approximately 18 years, Sierra's religious order sent him to work in Argentina. At that point, he left the relic, along with some published articles about Mexico and other historical documents, with Delaney, who had been appointed to work at Christ the King Church in Pueblo two years earlier. Delaney had worked in Walsenberg for 27 years, and both priests, who had known each other for many years, had a keen interest in Colorado history.

"I was leaving for South America, and wanted to put it in the hands of somebody who would be interested in keeping it," Sierra says. "I believe it originated from the Spanish, and imagined it might have come up from Mexico."

Delaney says he never pursued the mystery. "I guess I was more involved in other things," he says.

And so the piece sat in his file cabinet for decades. In fact, Delaney says he happened upon it just recently, while rummaging through his possessions. It was in an old cardboard Wilkinson Publishing Company greeting card box, nestled in tissue paper, exactly as Father Sierra had given it to him. The box is still stamped with an advertisement of its original contents: 10 cards for 10 cents.

When Delaney saw the June 20 article, he immediately compared his artifact to the image in the newspaper. He observed the jagged break pictured at the bottom; exactly the same as on the relic he held in his hands. He knew it was the piece the historians were looking for.

Christ the King's secretary Mary Meissner describes what happened next.

"Monsignor walked in here with this box and the [Denver Post] story and said, 'I have something to show you. Do you have time to look at this?' And then he opens it up and I looked at it, and then I looked at the photograph, and said, 'Monsignor, you mean there are two pieces like this?'"

Then the significance hit her. "I'm getting goose bumps," she says. "Of course, I said, 'What other relics do you have at your house?'"

Meissner has subsequently taken so many photographs of Delaney, and of the relic, that Delaney has taken to calling Meissner "the paparazzi."

click to enlarge c47e_cover-21794.gif

" He's so excited and cheery, it's like he's 60 years old again," says Meissner.

"[It's so] exciting that Monsignor Delaney has this piece of history," she says. "If, in fact, it is from the Escalante expedition, where the Father was spreading the Gospel to the Indians back in 1776, how fitting that it is in the hands of another priest, who has spread the word of God and still does at his age ..."

Hotbed of exploration

Delaney says he doesn't recall Father Sierra ever mentioning that he had sent the piece to museums or curators to be studied. At the time, the monsignor recalls, Sierra surmised it could have been a piece from a military standard left behind by a Spanish scouting party in Colorado.

Sierra was dubious that the bronze piece had come from a cross. Catholic crosses, he noted, were not usually decorated with the military images like that of which are incorporated into this particular artifact.

That didn't stop museum curator Bailey and a group of his colleagues from puzzling over the missing relic in Grand Junction. Three years ago, Anita Clark brought them the old newspaper clipping about her family's discovery, and Bailey says they added its disappearance to the museum's list of mysteries to work on.

Trying to clarify the details of the symbols on the relic, while working solely from a fuzzy photograph that accompanied the story, complicated their work.

"We have been doing research on the cross, and we haven't been able to find anything like it," Bailey says.

The rest of the cross if that is, indeed, what it is has never been found. Just last week, using ground-moving and advanced metal-seeking equipment, the museum team spent several days scouring a football-field-sized area at the base of the Grand Mesa. They turned up what they believe is a nail from a horseshoe and fragments of what might be a ringed horse bit, and plan to conduct metallurgic tests to determine their origins. Bailey is also heading a group of scientists, anthropologists, geologists and historians called the Western Investigations Team, and the group is planning return expeditions to the site to see what it can find.

One of the group's key interests is to more thoroughly investigate earlier expeditions in the area, including those of Spanish explorers who may have been searching for the lost city of Aztln, described by the native Aztec Indians in Mexico as an "earthly paradise to the north." The explorers may have connected that story with that of the fabled Seven Cities of Cbola, which they thought could hold great wealth.

"This area was a hotbed of Spanish exploration," Bailey says. "There were many expeditions, including many nonsanctioned expeditions."

"It's so fantastic'

click to enlarge Msgr. Howard Delaney of Christ the King Church in - Pueblo, pictured here in 1961. - COURTESY OF THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF PUEBLO
  • Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo
  • Msgr. Howard Delaney of Christ the King Church in Pueblo, pictured here in 1961.

And Bailey believes that an important key to the puzzle is the discovery of the bronze relic. On Monday, when he was provided a clear picture of the piece, he confirmed it must be one and the same.

"It's exactly like the [photo] we have, but it's a lot clearer," he says. "I'm surprised how much relief is on it there's a lot more detail.

"It's so fantastic; it's amazing."

Of particular interest is a flat-topped mountain depicted at the top of the bronze piece, above the image of King Constantine. Bailey says it looks to him exactly like the Grand Mesa, which dominates the region, much like Pikes Peak dominates Colorado Springs.

Bailey is also excited about being able to more clearly make out the image of the middle of the relic. It depicts the armor typical of Spanish explorers, called a cuirass, with a defined chest area and pointed leather straps designed to tie over the body, he says. The third image is of a crown encircling a cross.

The piece is already generating debate. After reviewing a photograph of the relic last week, Priscilla Muller, a former longtime curator at the Hispanic Society of America in New York, opined, "This sounds very odd for a Spanish cross." Such period crucifixes, she says, didn't normally contain images of Constantine or military insignia. Marcus Burke, the current curator of that organization, maintains the piece is not Hispanic, and may actually be of Protestant origin.

Bailey rejects Burke's assertion outright, noting in particular the image of the Spanish brass armor and other common Christian symbols, as well as the presence of Catholic Spanish explorers in the area. He strongly believes that the dark patina of the piece suggests it, indeed, dates from the 17th, or perhaps 18th, century. It is entirely possible, Bailey says, the relic could predate the Escalante expedition of 1776.

"Obviously, it's going to take a lot more research, but one thing we will be able to find out is how old it is," he says. "If it really dates to that time, it would be huge. That piece could be the factual evidence that [the Spanish] were here that early, and that could shed new light onto the history of Colorado."

Bailey hopes to make numerous castings of the piece for experts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Mexican National Museum in Mexico City, among others.

"Something this important should be sent to scholars all over the country," he says. "There is a lot of symbology on that little piece of metal, and the symbology of it is elusive at best."

The details of how and when Monsignor Delaney will hand over the prized possession have not yet been established. But Bailey says he would be thrilled to personally visit the priest and hopes that Anita Clark will be able to accompany him, so she can finally hold the artifact she found more than four decades ago.

"I'm glad to see some use for it," Delaney says with a smile. "I plan to give it to the museum if they don't cause any trouble."

click to enlarge Father John Sierra, S.F., the first pastor of Holy Rosary - Church in Pueblo, in an undated photo from the 1960s. - COURTESY OF THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF PUEBLO
  • Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo
  • Father John Sierra, S.F., the first pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Pueblo, in an undated photo from the 1960s.

That's hardly likely.

"[Delaney] is going to be a national hero around here," Bailey says. "I've been dying to see it, and to be honest, the work is just beginning."

Our Fathers

The Pueblo priests at the heart of the mystery

The two Catholic priests at the center of this week's discovery are longtime Colorado history buffs who have led fascinating lives.

Pastor Emeritus Monsignor Howard Delaney was born 94 years ago in eastern Nebraska, and moved to Denver in 1925. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan was active in Colorado the governor, Clarence Morley, was a member and Delaney recalls witnessing, as a seventh-grader, what he describes as the state's last official Klan march and rally, along Federal Boulevard in Denver in 1928.

Delaney attended St. Thomas Seminary in Denver and was ordained in 1940. He was appointed to a parish in Walsenberg, 90 miles south of Colorado Springs.

"I thought I would be there one year," he says.

Twenty-seven years later, he was reappointed to Christ the King Church in Pueblo. He officially retired on Dec. 31, 1976, though he still puts in a couple of hours a day at the church. "It keeps me off the streets," he jokes.

Delaney shares his interest in Colorado history with Father John Sierra, who he has known for many years. Delaney is particularly interested in southern Colorado, which, he maintains, has been "neglected historically," largely because of greater interest in gold and other discoveries in different parts of the state.

From the seminary of the Sons of the Holy Family in Silver Spring, Md., Sierra recounts his life's work.

Sierra, a descendant of one of the early Hispanic families that emigrated north from New Mexico, was raised in the San Luis Valley. At 13, he was sent to Spain for his studies. There, he grew into adulthood in the midst of the Spanish Revolution, during which violent attacks against Catholic priests and nuns were commonplace. "It was very frightening," Sierra says.

At 19, he went to France, and then to Rome, where he was ordained, also in 1940.

Eventually his religious order, the Sons of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia, sent him home to Colorado, first to Greeley and then to a parish in the San Luis Valley. Sierra became the first pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Pueblo in 1951, and became a champion of a massive community project to develop water and sewage lines to a major part of the city, which included his parish. "From there, we went on with the paving of the streets," he says.

In 1969 eight years after the Clark family found the artifact on the Grand Mesa Sierra was sent to Argentina. He spent five years there, and another two in Colombia. By then, he had become severely anemic, and returned to the United States, where he worked for several years in San Bernardino, Calif.

He has been living at the seminary in Silver Spring since 1990.

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