By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily
Rick Veit tells a good ghost story.
The pastor of Wyoming’s oldest church — St. Mark’s Episcopal in downtown Cheyenne — has had fewer people in his congregation this year, of course, because of the pandemic.
However, even when there were no people allowed in the church because of the coronavirus and he was doing his sermons via streaming video, he did have one attendee.
That’s because when Rick Veit became pastor in 2005, he inherited that churchgoer: the ghost of St. Mark’s church.
Although the story is spooky enough and the setting is spooky enough, Rick’s buoyant personality makes it difficult to get too unnerved by the subject matter.
But the subject matter is outstanding. The ghost of St. Mark’s Church is a great ghost story.
And it’s that way because it’s not violent and it’s not gory and it’s not a slaughter-fest like so many over-the-top movies.
This is a genuine spooky story. Campfire-type stuff.
The type of ghost story that plays in your head rather than hits you over your head.
First of all, St. Mark’s is a gorgeous stone structure built way back in 1868.
It was modeled after the church mentioned in Thomas Gray’s poem “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” that was built in 1080 A.D.
So, it’s naturally spooky. It’s not a church that used to be a K-Mart.
The ghost story of St. Mark’s is rooted in truth. Elements in this story can either be independently verified or were told me to as fact.
I know this because — 42 years ago — I spoke to Rector Eugene Todd.
Todd is the missing link to the whole story. He’s Scooby Doo. He solved the mystery.
I interviewed him when I was in seventh grade and was fascinated with this ghost story that became nationally known when it was the subject of 15 whole minutes on the TV show “That’s Incredible.”
Incidentally, Cathy Lee Crosby, one of the hosts of the show, told the story which only made it better because next to Loni Anderson, Crosby was the highlight of TV back in 1978.
The Legend of the Ghost
Many people know the story of the St. Mark’s ghost.
I remember — so vividly — hearing it for the first time while sitting in Todd’s office alongside a colleague. I was equipped with my Radio Shack tape recorder, he with a Kodak Instamatic camera.
If the ghost was going to present himself that day, we were ready.
Todd told me, as he told many people, the story of two Swedish stonemasons were hired to build the church tower. They were illegal immigrants, he said.
They were hired because Americans — back then — didn’t have the masonry skills needed to build structures of this kind.
They didn’t speak the language well. But they knew how to build a church tower.
Until that day. The day one of the two lost his footing and plunged to his death in the basement of the tower.
(That part about not being violent or gory? There were no chainsaws or axes involved, so this gets a mulligan).
The other stonemason — the surviving one — freaks out. He doesn’t speak the language. He shouldn’t be in America.
What do you do?
The logical thing: bury your friend in the wall.
There aren’t any other stonemasons around. There’s no foreman. He doesn’t have to report to a union. This is the wild, wild west.
That’s what he did. Stuffed his pal —like a burrito — into the wall and built around him.
The next day, however, he continued to be freaked and decided to leave town.
He pulled a Butch Cassidy, got out of Dodge, and headed down to South America.
Now, the Cheyenne locals weren’t happy. They were promised a steeple. And all they got was an unfinished bell tower.
So the rector called in some American workers and they finished the tower. No steeple. No bells. Instead of a Ferrari, they got a Dodge Caravan.
But they built an office. The rector’s study. It’s still there today.
By that time, a new rector was at the church and he was excited about the office.
To get there, you had to go through the basement of the tower and go up dozens of steps in the spiral staircase.
The Rector’s Study
When Cowboy State Daily went up there last year, things were as I recalled them as a 13-year-old. The smell was musty. It was full of shadows. And despite Rick’s upbeat personality, it was kinda creepy.
The rector’s study is plain. It’s just a landing. The wood squeaks. Gothic windows. Very drafty. Quite chilly.
In the daylight, it’s spooky. At night? Don’t know. I was given the option last year of doing a sleepover up there. I passed.
I don’t know if it was fear of the ghost or fear of no bathroom access. Rick said he would have to lock us in as the lock only works on the outside.
The basement feels more like a dungeon, complete with old Freddy Krueger-like boilers. There’s only one way out of that study — and it’s through that dungeon.
Someone did escape through the window from the rector’s study a few years ago, but that’s another story (and it’s true as well).
Whispers And Voices
Back to the turn of the 20th century. The new rector, who was excited about his new digs, quickly changed his mind about the office.
He heard whispers. He heard knocks. Muffled voices in the wall.
He opted for another office instead and the tower was declared off-limits.
In the late 1920s, times were good in Cheyenne as they were everywhere else in the nation. The decision was made to finish the tower.
No steeple. But plenty of bells. An extra 60 feet was added on to the structure.
During the construction, workers heard voices. And the churchgoers heard voices. Lots of whispers. According to one report, someone heard a disembodied voice say “there’s a body in the wall.”
Todd didn’t tell me that. Neither did Veit.
But it’s awesome to think about.
The rumors persisted throughout the decades that the church was haunted and people continued to say they heard sounds in the wall. Knockings. Faint whispers.
So how did Todd solve the mystery? How do we know about the unfortunate stonemason and his body-hiding friend?
This is where it gets fantastic. And deserving of a movie.
The way Todd told it to me was very straightforward, matter-of-fact, unembellished. And I’m not relying on my memory. Instead I have the report I wrote in eighth grade and I’m still miffed that I received a B-plus on it.
Todd was summoned down to a nursing home in 1966 — after one year on the job — because an elderly man needed to talk to him.
He was told that the man pleaded with the staff to find the current rector at St. Mark’s in Cheyenne.
It was his dying wish.
So he went.
Todd said the man was in ill-health. Frail. On his deathbed.
He said it pained the old man to speak. And Todd had to lean in to hear the elderly man’s barely audible voice.
The man held on to Todd’s hand and trembled as he began to whisper.
During that conversation, the man told Todd that he was hired to build the bell tower with his friend.
And when his friend fell to his death, he buried him in the wall.
He wanted to confess. He wanted to get it off his chest.
He told Todd the whole story.
The rector, as I recall, was cool with that. Told him it was ok.
The elderly man, his burden now lifted, died the next day.
Although now I think it’s a fantastic story, back then I was so freaked out, I couldn’t wait to leave the church.
That’s where the story really should end. It’s a great story. As-is.
But, like any sequel, the story gets ruined when you try to top the original (except Rocky II and The Godfather II).
Back in about 1980, a psychic from Denver went up to the tower along with a DJ from a Denver radio station with plans to spend the night.
I remember listening to the broadcast when they became so frightened that they demanded to be let out of the church.
To the 15-year-old me, that was all bluster and trying to get ratings. I was an expert. This was a friendly ghost. Not necessarily Casper. But not malevolent.
There was nothing sinister in Todd’s voice as he discussed the ghost he shared the church with for 27 years.
Forty years later, there was nothing sinister in Veit’s voice when we discussed the ghost, and he’s been there 15 years.
The Ghost Today
Veit explained to me that the purpose of a bell tower is to give glory to God.
“To reach up to the heavens and to remind people that we are connected to heaven,” he said poetically.
As for the ghost, Veit said, he’ll believe it when he sees it.
“There have been stories of people walking around here that aren’t actually people. There are sounds that occur, people’s voices, the organ playing by itself,” he said.
“I am still the skeptic, however.”
But he told the story of being down at the church one night with a youth group when they heard a great sound.
“We heard this enormous banging start to happen and we nearly jumped through the roof it was so frightening,” he said.
“We think it was the boiler,” he said laughing.
Veit said it is exciting to be in the church when things like this happen.
“I would like to see the ghost actually,” he said cheerfully.
A year later, Veit has nothing new to report.
The church (with ghost included) remains a wonderful structure in downtown Cheyenne.
Jimmy Orr is a Wyoming native who is a former spokesman for the White House, directed digital strategy for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was the Managing Editor, Digital, for the Los Angeles Times.