Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel


Holy Ghost parish was created by Bishop Matz in 1905. Frederick Bender, who had established Denver's second parish--St. Elizabeth's-- was called out of California retirement to be its pastor. Father Bender used his own money to buy two lots at 1950 Curtis Street and build the first Holy Ghost Church in 1905. He furnished this small church with fixtures saved when the old St. Mary's Church was demolished in 1900, including the main altar, the pews, the altar rail, and the church bell that had been lugged across the plains in 1865.

Father Bender retired for a second time in 1911 and died three years later. Garrett J. Burke, the second pastor at Holy Ghost, started the parish tradition of making the poor a top priority. Father Burke recruited musical and operatic stars for performances at the Denver Municipal Auditorium, using the proceeds to open a Catholic Workingman's Club that provided food, clothing, shelter, and jobs for the needy. In 1918, William S. Neenan became the third pastor. He soon found his 450-seat church filled to capacity and, in 1923, acquired six lots for $70,000 as a site for a larger church.

Jacques Jules Benoit Benedict, a leading Denver architect trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, told a Denver Catholic Register reporter, in 1924, why he chose the "Lombard-Romanesque style" for Holy Ghost. For "a downtown church, hemmed in by business buildings, hotels, garages and the like," Benedict noted, he wanted "directness and simplicity." Bishop Tihen dedicated the $170,000 basement church on December 14, 1924, calling for "Brotherly Love," at a time when the church was under attack from the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1923-1924 elected members as mayor of Denver, governor of Colorado, and U.S. congressmen.

Father Neenan died on August 25, 1930, and was followed by John Raymond Mulroy. Father Mulroy, like many other priests, had come to Colorado after being stricken with tuberculosis. Bishop Tihen gave him an easy task, heading the small Catholic Charities office started in 1919.

As Colorado's salubrious climate reinvigorated Father Mulroy, he transformed Catholic Charities into one of the largest and most powerful arms of the diocese. He found many of Denver's needy in his home parish, which included the demimonde and skid row within its boundaries--Broadway to the railyards, between 14th and 23rd streets. Several "brides of the multitude" were among the parishioners, and Father Mulroy purchased the ancient Urban Hotel--a former brothel at 621 19th Street--and converted it to a rectory and the Denver Catholic Library. In recognition of Mulroy's outstanding work with the poor, the Holy See raised him, in 1936, to the rank of papal chamberlain, with the title of very reverend monsignor.

In 1948, Monsignor Mulroy bought an old house at 22nd Street and Tremont Place, which he converted to the Holy Ghost Youth Center. Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory have been there ever since, conducting classes in English, religion, crafts, and skills, providing recreation, and making home visits to the sick, needy, and lonely.

Monsignor Mulroy sympathized with the indigent dead, as well as the living. He and some of his parishioners began making caskets for paupers in the basement of the rectory. As the poor person's church, Holy Ghost offered Masses for unclaimed corpses before their internment in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Monsignor Mulroy crusaded for the poor on many fronts, setting up other community and assistance centers within the church and also working with the city to promote public housing and welfare programs. He found some powerful allies in his work, most notably Helen Bonfils, who inherited The Denver Post.

"Miss Helen" frequently left her suite at The Denver Post to find solace in nearby Holy Ghost Church. She, like Monsignor Mulroy, began to dream of the day when Benedict's grand dream church would be completed, would rise from the basement foundation under a temporary tar roof that had to be sprinkled with water to keep the hot, stuffy, subterranean worship hall bearable. On April 23, 1941, Bonfils gave $300,000 to fund completion of Holy Ghost as a memorial to her parents. Her father, Frederick G. Bonfils, had been baptized on his deathbed by Monsignor McMenamin. Her mother, Belle Barton Bonfils, had died in 1933 on her way to visit the Margery Reed Mayo Day Nursery, another of Monsignor Mulroy's many projects for the poor. Belle Bonfils had received instructions and was preparing to join the Church at the time of her sudden death.

Architect John K. Monroe, who had been Benedict's assistant, began work anew on the 1924 foundation. The dignified Renaissance exterior featured blond bricks and cream-colored trim designed and cast by the Denver Terra Cotta Company for the exquisite doorways, windows, and trim underneath a green, Mediterranean tile roof. Inside, almost 300 tons of travertine marble from Salida, Colorado, were used for the columns, piers, and walls. This creamy travertine contrasted with the rich, dark hardwood used for the pews, coffered ceiling, and exquisitely carved pulpit and baldachino (altar canopy). This elaborate hood over the main altar celebrated the special role of Holy Ghost Church, since 1933, as the designated Denver shrine for daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

Helen Bonfils, whose generosity enabled Holy Ghost to come out of the basement and become one of Colorado's most beautiful houses of God, ultimately donated an estimated $1 million to the church. She had seen people faint in the old basement, so she donated air conditioning--then a novelty--that made Holy Ghost one of the most comfortable places of worship in Denver. She also provided a large lounge room with a "fainting couch," now known as the Bride's Room, and the thirteen wrought iron and opaque glass chandeliers--huge cross-shaped lamps that conceal loudspeakers. Postal workers at the Main Post Office a block away at 19th and Stout streets donated the missal and missal stand.

On July 8, 1943, Archbishop Vehr dedicated the 800-seat downtown church with its commanding Renaissance campanile. Among the 1,500 spectators were Denver's mayor, Benjamin F. Stapleton, Colorado Governor John Vivian, and hundreds of downtown workers who relished having this spiritual haven nearby. "While bombs . . . are leveling the Christian monuments of the ages in the Old World," Archbishop Vehr declared at the dedication ceremony, the Church was building "in the cities and towns of the New World in ever increasing dignity and beauty. . . . The beauty of this house of God will stimulate piety and love of the creator and bring consolation and peace of soul."

Monsignor Mulroy died in 1965 and was succeeded by Bishop David M. Maloney (1965-1967) and Monsignor Richard Heister (1967). Even after the transformation of the liturgy in the 1960s, Holy Ghost kept a Latin High Mass at 10 o'clock on Sunday mornings. Hundreds of tradition-loving Catholics jam this Mass. The Holy Ghost Choir enriches and colors the Masses with Gregorian chant and classical ecclesiastical selections that thrill music lovers of all denominations.

Monsignor Heister was called to Vietnam war duty as a military chaplain in 1968, and John V. Anderson began his decade as pastor of Holy Ghost parish. Father Anderson and Charley, his pet basset hound, moved into the rectory with Jerome L. Weinert, the assistant pastor at Holy Ghost since April 24, 1934, who ably handled many of the daily operations of the church while the pastors, from the time of Monsignor Mulroy, ministered to archdiocesan affairs. "Charley and I," Father Anderson reminisced with a wink, "quickly discovered that Father Weinert had converted the rectory basement to a sauerkraut factory. Rectory residents had to tolerate these olfactory offenses rising from those huge basement vats, however, because Father Weinert supplied the stuff to Archbishop Vehr, who loved it."

Father Anderson soon found himself in the booming business of supplying sandwiches to Denver's street and alley people. "When the Wazee Center for the hungry and homeless closed in 1974," Father Anderson recalled,

Erma Kattau, my secretary, and I set up a sandwich line. We bought Rainbow sandwich bread, French's Salad Mustard, baloney, and Velveeta Cheese. The first day we had fifteen customers. By the time I left Holy Ghost in 1978, it was more like 350. "For the street people, we also set up a free health clinic in our parish hall in 1975, which was tended by Doctor Frank Seydel, Jr., and two nurses from Denver General Hospital. When the homeless asked for lodging, we would send them down to the Larimer Street hotels and pay for their rooms there.

In 1978, Father Anderson became pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish and was replaced by a former New York City ad man. Charles Bert Woodrich had spent three years as an account executive with a large advertising agency before being ordained in Denver in 1953, after training at St. Thomas Seminary. "Father Woody," as he liked to be called, had worked for fourteen years in Annunciation parish, as chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital, and as editor of the Denver Catholic Register since 1972, the same year he began living at the Holy Ghost rectory. Father Woody built on the work of his predecessors to make Holy Ghost an example of Christian charity that attracted national press and television coverage.

The Christmas blizzard of 1982 dumped over two feet of snow on the metro area in twenty-four hours, paralyzing the city. It was a storm that came within a few inches of erasing the 1913 blizzard as the Mile High City's worst. Weeks of unusually cold, snowy weather followed, compounding the nationwide economic chill that left Colorado in a recession with hundreds of homeless and hopeless.

"I would say Mass and see those poor people hiding in the corner of the church," Father Woody recalled. "To me that was Christ pleading for help. I didn't hold a meeting. Those old-time giants of the church, characters like Monsignor Mulroy, didn't hold meetings. They did what they had to do and held a meeting about it later." On the afternoon of February 3, 1982, Denver hoped for relief from a subzero cold spell. Instead, the forecast called for more snow, a wind chill factor of 30 below and "a high tomorrow of 3 to 7 below zero." After the 5:10 afternoon Mass, Father Woody ordered that the doors be left open. That evening, about eighty-five indigents who normally slept in doorways, trash dumpsters, and on heating grates, slept on the oak pews of Holy Ghost.

The next night it was 8 below zero and the word was out. Over 400 people slept in the church. "My staff thought I was insane," Father Woody reported. "People were lying down two or three to a pew and on the floor." The national press and all the major television networks broadcast the story of the Denver church's radical solution to a growing national problem of homelessness.

"Some parishioners objected, so I took to the pulpit," said Father Woody. "I told them they couldn't pray to the Lord and reject the ones he loved most; that if they wanted sterilized people sitting next to them, to go to another church. We burned a lot of incense to cover the smell." Holy Ghost Church continued to welcome the homeless for three months, until spring finally came, and Archbishop Casey announced that the former Cathedral High School would be opened as the Samaritan Shelter.

While caring for the poor, Father Woody was also negotiating with the rich--developers eager to build a high-rise office building on the Holy Ghost triangle bounded by California, 19th, and Broadway. "This was a miraculous deal," exulted Father Woody in a 1987 interview.

The developers of 1999 Broadway gave the church $1.5 million in improvements and paid the archdiocese around $5 million cash and a $6 million note for the site. Then they built a forty-story, semicircular high rise around the church, using a dark green glass that matched the church roof and reflected the architectural jewel it frames. When the oil bust of 1983 knocked the bottom out of the office building market, the developers wanted out. We settled for the return of the church title. So what really happened is that we sold the old rectory and garage for $9.5 million. The Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, and the nonsale of Holy Ghost are deals that will never be duplicated. Now Holy Ghost Church can continue to help the needy and offer weekly services that draw about 4,000 a week in a parish with fewer than fifty resident Catholics.

In 1988, in recognition of Father Woody's outstanding contributions, Pope John Paul II, acting on the advice of Archbishop Stafford, awarded the pastor of Holy Ghost the title of reverend monsignor.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver