Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel


When the Reverend Jesse Jackson brought his presidential campaign to Colorado in 1988, he chose the humble church of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a Sunday stop. Two years earlier, Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, likewise had selected it as the place to meet with area religious leaders regarding his country's efforts to rebuild following decades of repressive dictatorship.

Few were surprised, as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church has been a center of both social and religious activism for years, as its Theatine pastors pursued the Gospel mandate: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice." For years, the parish motorbus and the basketball backboard carried the logo of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union led by César Chávvez of California to organize agricultural laborers. For Hispanics and especially for newly arrived Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a refuge and a center of hope since its founding. The Theatine fathers first came to Denver in 1925 to establish St. Cajetan Church and opened Guadalupe, in 1936, as a mission. To emphasize the church's special ministry to Mexican-Americans, it was named for the patroness of Mexico, whose dark-complexioned, life-sized statue occupies the niche over the doorway.

Starting on a shoestring, the Theatines acquired Slavin's corner store at 1201 West 36th Avenue in 1935, and remodeled it for services. Spanish-speaking priests from St. Cajetan's tended to the little mission in the South Platte River bottoms. As the Hispanic percentage of Denver's population grew from less than 1 percent in 1920 to the largest single ethnic minority in recent decades, Our Lady of Guadalupe outgrew its storefront church.

Under the leadership of Andres Burguera, CR, a new, Spanish mission-style church was completed and dedicated by Archbishop Vehr on August 12, 1948. This $66,500 church featured a specially cast bell from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Guadalupe Hall, at 3632 Lipan Street, was completed in 1974, and a three-day fiesta inaugurated its use for classes in boxing, dancing, karate, language, and religion, as well as community and parish gatherings. A rectory and parish offices at 1209 West 36th Avenue were constructed during the 1970s.

Parish expansion began with the 1969 arrival of a new pastor, José María Lara, CR. This Theatine priest, born and bred in the Basque region of Spain, transformed the parish into a center of Chicano activism. To the dismay of some traditionalists, Father Lara even celebrated Mass with the United Farm Workers' eagle emblazoned on the back of his bright red sackcloth chasuble. The UFW, La Raza political party, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales' Crusade for Justice, and other militant Hispanic groups found themselves welcome at Guadalupe. Among parishioners rising to political prominence were city councilman Sal Carpio, Federico Peña--Denver's first Spanish-surnamed mayor--and Paul Sandoval, a state legislator and Denver School Board member.

To reflect the faith and culture of the congregation, Guadalupe Church adopted mariachi Masses, Hispanic fiestas, and folkways. These included the Christmas-time street drama of Las Posadas, with processioners accompanying Mary and Joseph from house to house in a reenactment of the search for a shelter where Christ could be born. Those welcoming the Holy Family invited processioners into their homes for song, prayer, and refreshments, including menudo, empanaditas, buuelos, and bizcochitos.

Hispanic artists were invited by Father Lara to redecorate the parish plant. Andrew and Jesse Mendoza and James Romero, teenagers who lived next to the church and served as altar boys, painted a mural of a fifteenth-century Aztec sundial on the church office entrance wall. Its black-light florescent paint in hues of blue, red-pink, and yellow glows at night, as do a variety of pre-Columbian gods painted in the multipurpose room. Father Lara wanted to emphasize the Indian, as well as the Spanish, roots of his people.

Carlota Espinoza painted the ceiling of the church with La Nuestra Seora de Guadalupe, who appeared to the Indian Juan Diego on a hill outside Mexico City in 1531. This 1977 mural portrays a lovely lady and angels floating in an azure sky with snowcapped mountains in the background. In 1982, Carlos Sandoval painted the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) mural on the west wall of the parish hall, using the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Luis Valley as the backdrop.

Father Lara's political activism led Denver police to raid the church on March 23, 1976. Despite Father Lara's protests, officers picked the lock to search the church. As the handcuffed priest watched, over thirty members of the Special Command Action Team looked for rumored explosives, which turned out to be sacks of pinto beans the parish was stockpiling for its cooperative grocery.

Although Archbishop Casey had been out of town at the time, the police had obtained permission from other archidocesan officials to raid the church. After Father Lara publicly criticized him, Archbishop Casey attempted to heal the wounds on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1976. He concelebrated Mass with Father Lara at Our Lady of Guadalupe, apologizing from the pulpit for the incident and elevating Our Lady of Guadalupe to formal parish status.

Father Lara left the parish in 1979 and subsequently left the priesthood. Pat Valdez, the first U.S.-born pastor, subsequently guided the parish, continuing to make it a refuge and center of hope. Marshall Gourley, CR, pastor since 1982, continued activist traditions. He was arrested in March 1983 while protesting a nuclear weapons "Death Train" passing through Denver, using his censor and incense to exorcise the tracks of "nuclear devils." In April 1988, as gang violence escalated in Denver, Father Gourley started an antiweapons campaign. Parishioners and others were asked to turn in their guns and sign a personal and international disarmament pledge. When praised for his courageous social activism, Father Gourley told The Denver Post of March 5, 1989, that his parishioners inspired him to act on Christian principle: "Priests are like leaves, they come and go. The people are the branches. They are always here."

Since 1980, the parish has sponsored an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. In 1987, one of the pilgrims was Denver's new archbishop, J. Francis Stafford, who declared that a major goal of his administration would be reconciling Hispanics to the church they first introduced to Colorado.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver