Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel

GOOD SHEPHERD (1981)

"Although Good Shepherd is one of the newest parishes in the archdiocese of Denver," founding pastor John V. Anderson reported that "it is actually a continuation of two dearly departed parishes--St. John's and St. Philomena's."

St. John the Evangelist was started in 1891 by Thomas H. Malone, a prominent cleric-journalist who coauthored the 1889 History of the Catholic Church in Colorado. The first Masses were offered in the old Harman School House at East 4th Avenue and Columbine Street. James Motley was the mayor of Harman, then a country town, which later became annexed to Denver and is better known today as the Cherry Creek neighborhood. Mayor Motley worked with Father Malone to build a small, twenty-five-by-forty-foot church in the 300 block of Detroit Street.

Timothy O'Brien, who succeeded Father Malone as pastor of St. John's, found the original church too crowded and built the traditional red brick church at the northeast corner of East 5th Avenue and Josephine Street and a rectory next door. The $9,000 church was dedicated by Bishop Matz on May 10, 1903. As the surrounding Cheesman Park, Cherry Creek, and Country Club neighborhoods developed, the parish flourished, prompting construction of a $50,000 parish school at East 6th Avenue and Elizabeth Street in 1924. Charles J. Carr, pastor from 1907 until his death in 1932, was followed by Monsignor Gregory Smith. The monsignor reported in a 1987 interview that this "little toy church" had many prominent parishioners, some of whom lived in the adjacent Country Club neighborhood.

Patrick R. "Reddy" Gallagher was among the most colorful of St. John's parishioners. He was called "Reddy" because of his red hair and readiness for fisticuffs. As Denver's prime proponent of the sport of boxing, he was a pugilist himself, coached others, staged many fights, and, in the 1920s, began a long career as a sports writer for The Denver Post. Although he supposedly could neither read nor write, Reddy could dictate and knew more about boxing than anyone else around. After his death, his wife donated the Gallagher Memorial as a mausoleum for the bishops and archbishops of Denver at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Monsignor John Moran followed Smith as pastor at St. John's in 1940 and remained until his retirement in 1968. Monsignor Moran acquired a house at 2611 East 7th Avenue Parkway, in 1949, as a convent for the Sisters of Loretto who taught at St. John's School. Archbishop Vehr, in 1961, blessed a $280,000 addition to the school, which included six more classrooms and a gymnasium/auditorium.

The old St. John's overflowed with parishioners by the 1950s, when Monsignor Moran began planning a new church with architect John K. Monroe. They decided upon a beautiful Lombardic church, with a matching rectory next door to the east. Designed in buff brick and terra cotta, it is a low, warm structure that compliments rather than overshadows the neighboring residences.

Archbishop Vehr dedicated the church on December 2, 1953, and St. John's moved into its elegant home on one of Denver's loveliest parkways. The old organ was incorporated into the new church choir gallery. The old St. John's was partitioned for use as classrooms until the new school was completed at East 6th Avenue and Elizabeth Street. Then it was remodeled as a recreation center and basketball court, with hoops where an altar and a choir loft once stood. The old landmark church continued to be used by St. John's for recreational purposes until 1981, when it was sold to Ramón Kelley, the celebrated Southwestern artist and Good Shepherd parishioner, who converted the old church to his studio.

At the other end of the consolidated parish, the Archdiocesan Housing Committee, Inc., broke ground in 1989 for Higgins Plaza on the site of St. Philomena's. "Higgins Plaza," explained housing administrator Sister Mary Lucy Downey in 1986, "will be low-income, elderly housing named for the long-time pastor of St. Phil's--Monsignor William Higgins."

St. Philomena's, established on June 21, 1911, by Bishop Matz, completed a Romanesque church in 1912 at the southeast corner of East 14th Avenue and Detroit Street. A fine, $2,600 marble memorial altar was donated by members on September 25, 1932, the 20th anniversary of the church's dedication. Michael Donovan, the founding pastor, served the parish until marching off to World War I service as a chaplain. In 1919, he came home to St. Phil's full of patriotism and built a parade ground at the corner of 14th and Detroit.

After Father Donovan's death in 1922, Monsignor Higgins was pastor at St. Philomena's until his death in 1967. Monsignor Higgins was "God with a terrible temper," according to one plump nun who taught in the parish school. "But after he blew up he always sent peace offerings--candy, ice cream, or pastries." Leonard Urban, a long-time assistant at St. Phil's, memorialized the monsignor in his weekly column for the Denver Catholic Register, December 10, 1986:

Monsignor Higgins was able to preach at length on any subject, holding interest by sheer force of vocabulary and intonation. He strode through life with a flourish, hurrying along with cape and red trimmed cassock floating gracefully behind him. . . .

Subsequent pastors were Monsignor Elmer Kolka, Frank G. Morfeld, Leo Horrigan, Raymond Jones, and Dennis Dwyer. During the 1970s, membership declined in both parishes, leading Archbishop Casey to announce on January 9, 1981, that the two neighboring and shrinking congregations would be merged. The consolidated parish was christened the Church of the Good Shepherd and used St. John the Evangelist Church for services. Both the old St. John School at 620 Elizabeth Street and the old St. Philomena School at 940 Fillmore Street were used for the new school program.

For the challenge of uniting two fiercely proud and quite different parishes, Archbishop Casey chose John V. Anderson, who had been pastor of St. John's since 1978. "That was a difficult and painful assignment," Father Anderson recalled years later, "but for the future of our archdiocese we have to use parishes and priests in the best way possible."

Father Anderson is a Denver native active in church and community affairs, serving twice as president of St. Thomas Seminary Alumni Association, secretary of the Priest's Retirement Board, and as a trustee of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation, as well as being a board member and treasurer of the Bonfils Theater.

Good Shepherd maintains a preschool (ages three-five), a Montessori School (age 2 to fourth grade) and a middle school (grades five-eight). The middle school offers a full academic curriculum, including calligraphy, spelling bees, dance, and computer classes. An enrichment program provides before- and after-school activities.

Today, Good Shepherd Church boasts not only a comprehensive school program but also is noted for its classical and contemporary music and Tridentine Latin Masses. Because of his fine voice, knowledge of Latin, and sensitivity to tradition, Father Anderson was selected by Archbishop Stafford in 1989 to offer monthly Tridentine Masses, which had been requested by tradionalists. "We try," Father Anderson reflected in 1988, "to perpetuate here at Good Shepherd the history and traditions of two great old parishes."


Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver