Thomas Higgins was an early Bisbee mining speculator. He moved to Los Angeles and became a real estate developer while the mining camp was still just a camp. But he owned property—actually an entire hill—just up the canyon from Castle Rock. What is still called Higgins Hill is home to a couple of Bisbee icons: the Cochise County Courthouse and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Higgins was a good Catholic and in 1905, when Father Meurer, the local priest, needed a school he contacted the mine owner in California who donated a portion of the surface land on his Aurora mining claim for (quote) “erection and maintenance of a Roman Catholic Convent School thereon”. And so, the first Catholic building on the hill was not the church, but a 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.
Bisbee had a Catholic Church from its earliest days. The first, possibly the first of any denomination, was a small cabin on Naco Road. From 1884 to 1890 an adobe building on Quality Hill was used attended by a succession of visiting priests. In 1891, funds were raised for a frame structure across the canyon on School Hill near Clawson Avenue. It was consecrated as the first St. Patrick’s Church by Bishop Ganjon of Tucson who had been one of the early itinerant pastors. In 1896 the church was enlarged and a pastor’s residence constructed although priests still divided their duties between Bisbee and Tombstone. By 1904 as population increased, the Catholics split up. There were over 4000 Mexican-Americans in town and they moved to a church on Chihuahua Hill with another priest. The school on Higgins Hill, now called Loretto Academy continued to serve all the town’s catholic kids. Eventually, it would be called St. Patrick’s Parochial School, but not until the church had moved again.
Father Meurer died in 1913 and a French missionary priest, Father Mandin was sent to shepherd the growing flock. From the beginning, he was a go-getter. Within two years, the $13,000 debt on the Clawson building was liquidated and the congregation started planning for a new church to accommodate Bisbee’s expanding population. Copper was booming as World War I industry hungered for material. The priest raised $5000 to start the project and chose a site next to the Academy. Thomas Higgins once again donated the property and may have suggested Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin to design the church. Local tradition says Higgins had one condition—that the structure face south toward the site of his mine rather than east toward downtown. That’s why the first view visitors have today is the side of the building, not the front.
In 1915 Father Mandin hired A.C. Martin, gave him a $40,000 budget, and plans were started. It was quickly apparent that the first proposal would be too small for the growing parish and the budget was increased to $150,000.
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. Ground was broken on September 11, 1915 and local contractor John Steffes went to work.
Excavation for the foundation and ground level took nearly six months and local miners who were church members pledged four hours a day hand labor to dig out the dirt and rock. Men on night shift worked 10 am to 2pm while day shifters worked 5pm to 9 or later. Non-Catholics pitched in and Father Mandin donned overalls to help. The ground level basement was finished first and the priest moved in while work went on. The contract for the terra cotta facing went out in early 1916 and construction proceeded steadily even when a miner’s strike in the summer of 1917—the one that ended in the Bisbee Deportation—disrupted life in the community. On September 30, 1917, just two years after groundbreaking, Bishop Ganjon consecrated the almost completed church.
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. But multiple fundraisers and dances organized by parish women took care of that in just seven years, quite an achievement. Father Mandin donated the frame church on Clawson to the Spanish speaking people of Bisbee. Called The Sacred Heart, it was used until 1954 when a new, larger church was built. Father Mandin stayed on at St. Patrick’s until 1937. In 1960 a new rectory was built; in 1962 a new convent went up across the street; and in 1995, after the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a three-year renovation and restoration began. The roof was replaced using the same Vermont green slate and the decorative terra cotta features repaired. Inside, the three altars which look like marble but are wood frame covered with painted composition material were fully restored by Bisbee artisan Roy Mosier.
The school next door closed in the 1970’s as costs increased and attendance dropped. The sisters are gone. Priests come and go. Parishioners still attend mass every week. St. Pat’s, as it has always been known, fulfills its role as a place where community gather; people are cared for; spiritual solace is sought. Visitors marvel at its beauty and splendor. When completed nearly 100 years ago, it was called “the crowning example of the exuberance of expansion of the City of Bisbee.” The city has shrunk some over the years and congregations are smaller. Nobody remembers exactly where Thomas Higgins’ Aurora mine was, but everyone knows the church that stands on his land just down the hill. St. Patrick’s lives on.