History of the Site
Since 1905, the Catholic Church in Colorado has had a strong and indelible presence in southeast Denver at the site now known as the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization. Evolving with the times but always meeting the timeless needs of the Church, the John Paul II campus has long and often been described as the heart of the Catholic faith in Colorado.
Moreover, in the celebrated Colorado Catholicism and the Archdiocese of Denver, 1857-1989, author Thomas J. Noel suggests that the presence of the campus, from its early days of a Vincentian-operated seminary, “made Denver the hub for Rocky Mountain Catholicism.” Today, still perhaps because of the work of the John Paul II Center, the Holy Father has credited Denver with being on the frontlines of the New Evangelization in the Americas.
The opening of the first seminary on the John Paul II Center site in the early twentieth century came as the fulfillment of an earnest desire of His Excellence Nicholas Chrysostom Matz, the second bishop of the Diocese of Colorado. According to Noel, “Bishop Matz yearned for the day when his diocese would have its own seminary.” The bishop made arraignments with the Congregation of the Mission Priests, commonly referred to as the Vincentians, a group of ordered priests founded in 1617 by Saint Vincent de Paul. With the agreement of Bishop Matz, the Vincentians bought 59.5 acres of land for $15,218 on November 10, 1906. The land would house the Saint Thomas Aquinas Theological Seminary, recognized by Matz as the diocesan seminary that had been incorporated on September 4, 1905.
In 1908, the first edifice, a four-story, red brick building, which stands to the present, opened its doors to the seminarians who gathered in Denver from all over the Rocky Mountain West. According to Noel, in the earliest days, when the area around the seminary was still rural, seminarians helped farm the site. “They cultivated alfalfa and potatoes and tended to pigs and cattle as well as priestly studies,” he recalls. In 1924, the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary expanded during the episcopacy of Bishop J. Henry Tihen who launched the “Seminary Crusade.” Bishop Tihen’s “crusade” generated $600,000 for the seminary between 1924 and 1926. The funds were used for new classrooms, dormitory, refectory, and chapel. Additionally, the new expansion included an impressive 138-foot-high bell tower, later posthumously named for Bishop Tihen.
In 1995, the Vincentian order announced the closure of Saint Thomas Aquinas seminary. Even though the order had opened the seminary’s doors in previous years to laypeople seeking postgraduate degrees, the facilities and the campus were deemed too large to maintain. However, within short progression that same year, the Archdiocese of Denver assured that this gem of Colorado Catholicism would not lose is luster. On Friday, September 8, 1995, Archbishop J. Francis Stafford signed documents by which he official purchased the old St. Thomas campus at $2.59 million for the Archdiocese of Denver.
In 1996, with the inspiration of the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Denver for World Youth Day three years earlier, the archdiocese announced that the former St. Thomas seminary would be renamed the “John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.” With a commitment to the Holy Father’s invitation to embark on a new evangelization of the Gospel of Christ, particularly in the Americas, the John Paul II Center would initially “reach out to Catholics of all ages through a mix of youth meetings, media education, retreats and liturgies, formation in lay apostolic community life, classroom instruction in Scripture and doctrine, multicultural ministry, and vocation discernment.” After the addition of a new wing to a preexisting building, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center (chancery) relocated to the John Paul II campus in 1997.
Within a year following his instillation as the Archbishop of Denver, His Excellence Charles J. Chaput announced plans to found a new diocesan seminary on the John Paul II campus, continuing the long and proud tradition of priestly formation at the site. In 1999, the Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary opened its doors. A second school, Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary, affiliated with the Neocatechumenal Way, opened in the “Old Red Brick” building shortly thereafter.
In 2003, the archdiocese engaged in a $5 million dollar expansion to the burgeoning seminaries by initiating an addition to the Old Red Brick building. The expansion opened in 2004, ready to serve the nearly 100 seminarians who will be studying of the priesthood during the 2004-2005 academic year. With the strong seminary presence and the location of the majority of the archdiocesan offices in the adjoining chancery, the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization is truly at the heart of the Church in northern Colorado and on the frontlines of the Church’s modern “crusade” for the “New Evangelization.”