Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel


This handsome, twin towered church, only a half-block from St. Joseph Polish Catholic Church and three blocks from Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church, is a monument to the religious devotion and ethnic pride of Denver's Slavic peoples.

In 1918, after World War I, the old Austrian empire was broken up, freeing Slavic peoples, including those of Bosnia, Croatia, Dalmatia, Hercegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slavonia. These countries claimed that they--not their neighbors the Greeks--first developed truly democratic government. Democracy and independence have subsequently been burning issues because Balkan peoples have been conquered and oppressed for much of their long history; Romans, Franks under Charlemagne, Turks, Hapsburg emperors of Austria, Napoleon, Nazis, and most recently, Soviets, all aggrandized their empires at Eastern Europe's expense.

In search of greater economic and politcal freedom, many Slavs immigrated to the United States; Slovenians, Croatians, and others began settling in Denver during the 1880s. Many found work in the Globeville area with its smelters, stockyards, packing houses, railyards, and other industries. Sunday Masses and religious festivals in their own language were among the precious few things these poor, hard working immigrants possessed. Ignatius Burgar, chaplain of Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pueblo, said Masses in St. Jacob Hall, 4485 Logan Street, a Slavic tavern and clubhouse. After Father Burgar's death in 1904, Cyril Zupan, OSB, traveled to Denver from Pueblo to offer spiritual guidance, Mass, and the sacraments.

Bishop Matz tried to steer all the Slavs into the small, struggling St. Joseph's Polish parish established in Globeville in 1902. Slovenians formed a substantial minority group within St. Joseph parish, but the Polish priest, Theodore Francis Jarzynski, and Polish parishioners controlled the church.

Slovenians complained that they paid $10-a-year pew rentals and fifty-cents-a-month confession fees, yet still had to sit in back of the church and be poked in the stomach with the collection basket by Polish ushers. After Bishop Matz died in 1917, Slovenians began crusading for their own parish with the new bishop, J. Henry Tihen.

Peter Grabian (a driver), Joseph Horvat (a shoemaker), Frank Jancan (a butcher), Joseph Lesser (a cabinet maker), laborers Louis Silk, John Starr, and George Pavlakovich, John Peketz, (a bartender), grocers Jacob Pavela, Joseph Videtich, and John Yelenick, and others met with the pastor of St. Mary Slovenian Church in Pueblo, Cyril Zupan, OSB, to establish Holy Rosary parish. At an organizational meeting in St. Jacob Hall on December 10, 1917, they drafted a letter to Bishop Tihen declaring that the "Slovenian and Croatian people of Globeville . . . will regard . . . permission to build their church . . . as the best Christmas gift they have ever received or expect to receive."

Accompanying this letter was a petition signed by 108 families with 213 children under the age of twelve. This evidence of a large and growing ethnic community helped convince Bishop Tihen to create Holy Rosary parish in 1918. Father Zupan served as the first pastor from 1918 to 1921, commuting by train from his regular parish in Pueblo.

Southern Slavs were overjoyed with their new parish and bought thirteen lots for $1,680; parishioners Nick Shaball and John J. Yelenick donated three additional lots. The Desjardins family, Denver contractors and architects, designed a $35,000 brick church with twin bell towers. These fifty-foot-high towers looked down on St. Joseph's single spire and everything else in Globeville except for the smelter smokestacks. Inside, the ninety-six-by-forty-six-foot church had three altars and a wealth of Slavic Catholic symbols and statues. Parishioners donated or made these religious art treasures, but none outshone their electric lightbulb rosary.

A spring blizzard postponed dedication of the church until July 4, 1920, when members celebrated both their political and religious independence. John J. Judnic, a Slovenian-born diocesan priest trained at St. Thomas Seminary, came to Holy Rosary from St. Joseph parish in Leadville on February 27, 1921, to become the first resident pastor.

For their new pastor, Holy Rosary parishioners built a large $10,352 rectory at 4670 Pearl. Father Judnic moved out of the rectory into tiny rooms in the back of the church in 1927, turning over his house to four Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic of Springfield, Illinois. They came to teach in the Holy Rosary School, a $26,714 building designed by Colorado Springs architect Thomas McClaren, which opened its doors to 152 squirming young scholars in September 1928.

Father Judnic, who was ultimately made a monsignor, guided the parish until his death on July 12, 1959. Among the many accomplishments during his pastorate were erection of the present rectory and the complete renovation and redecoration of the church in 1957. He was followed by John Canjar, a native son of the parish, who guided it from 1959 to 1969, working with parishioners such as David Williams to restore and repaint the church after the devastating South Platte River flood of 1965.

Leopold Mihelich, a Croatian survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, came to Denver in 1955 in search of religious freedom. Father Mihelich served as assistant pastor at Holy Rosary from 1955 to 1959, then as pastor from 1969 to 1977, presiding over a major refurbishing of the church, including repair of the large rose window and restoration of the original liturgical symbols with twenty-three-carat gold leaf. Father Mihelich spent four days cleaning the chandeliers.

The parish school closed May 28, 1969, but reopened in 1974, revamped as a traditional "Four R's" school offering reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic and religion. A rigid demerit system, tough dress code, required daily attendance at Mass, flag ceremonies, and even use of the old McGuffey's readers attracted pupils from throughout the city. After this school closed, the building was converted to senior housing. Subsequent pastors have been Monsignor Edward A. Leyden (1977-1982) and the current pastor, Joseph A. Meznar.

Father Meznar, a Slavic-American whose parents were married in Holy Rosary parish, was baptized there along with his brother, Robert P. Meznar, the associate pastor at St. Catherine of Siena parish. Father Joseph wrote in 1989:

Holy Rosary welcomes all nationalities and has established a satellite parish for former parishioners forced out of the Globeville area by the construction of [highways] I-70 and I-25. Recent parish "facelifting" has included extensive plumbing repairs, repainting and recarpeting, replacement of electrical wiring and broken and cracked windows. A new sound system was installed and the church grounds were landscaped. Lightning rods were installed to protect the thrice-struck church.

The spirit of the parish is reflected in the fact that all of this work has been donated by volunteers, without whose devotion and assistance the parish would not be able to remain open. Indeed, Holy Rosary has been and is an example of community pride and spiritual commitment.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver