Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel


The lovely stone landmark crowning the Auraria Campus on the west bank of Cherry Creek has a vivid history, including ethnic rivalry, railroad circuit-riding Franciscan friars and Franciscan nuns who panhandled on Larimer Street--as well as a bizarre murder. Germans--the largest foreign born group in nineteenth-century Colorado--petitioned Bishop Machebeuf for their own priest in the 1870s. Their prayers were answered in 1878, when the bishop established Denver's second parish, St. Elizabeth's. This new parish served Auraria and Southwest Denver, while St. Mary's continued to serve the northeast half of the Mile High City.

"I have a Prussian exile priest to whom I have given the care of the Germans of Denver," Bishop Machebeuf reported in 1879, "and I have applied to the Franciscans for two priests to establish a house of their order and a parish here." John Wagner, the "Prussian exile," raised money among the Germans to buy two lots at the corner of 11th and Curtis streets and began constructing a 30-b-y100-foot brick church. Frederick Bender was transferred from Colorado Springs to complete St. Elizabeth Church, where he began saying Sunday Masses in September 1879.

In 1887, the Franciscans responded to Bishop Machebeuf's appeals and sent Francis Koch, OFM (Order of Friars Minor), and Venatius Eder, OFM, to found a Franciscan House at St. Elizabeth's. These and subsequent Franciscans came to Denver from the Patterson, New Jersey, Monastery of the Franciscan Fathers of St. Elizabeth of Thuringia. With the Franciscans caring for the German-speaking parishioners, Bishop Machebeuf assigned Father Patrick Carr to establish another parish--St. Leo the Great--for English-speaking Catholics. John Kernan Mullen, a poor Irish immigrant on his way to becoming a millionaire flour miller, helped his fellow Irish at St. Elizabeth's to complete St. Leo the Great Church at 10th Street and West Colfax Avenue in 1889. Despite the division of the Auraria parish, both churches flourished as Germans, Irish, and other Catholics streamed into the booming Queen City. Father Koch built a $20,000 two-story brick school (1890) and $18,000 rectory (1891). As the German national church for the entire city, St. Elizabeth's became so overcrowded that the old building was torn down to construct a new one in 1898. This $69,000 Romanesque church, designed by Father Adrian, OSF, was built of rusticated rhyolite (lava stone) from Castle Rock quarries. It measured 132 feet by sixty-nine feet with a single spire soaring 162 feet high.

The stately clock and bell tower enhanced Father Koch's reputation as a fund raiser whose exploits became the talk of the diocese. This Franciscan asked Philip Zang--who owned what was then the largest brewery in the Rockies--to help build the new church. Zang, a German Congregationalist, balked until Father Koch promised him that the biggest bell would be named St. Philip for him. Furthermore, the Franciscan promised the beer maker, the bells would advertise Zang's beer and embarrass the nearby Tivoli Brewery: They would be cast not to sound "Clang! Clang!" but "Zang! Zang!"

Father Koch's shabby brown habit embarrassed some parishioners. They showered him with clothing but would next encounter him in his tattered old garments. "I met a poor fellow suffering from the cold," Father Koch would explain. "What else could I do?"

One day this brown-robed Franciscan walked up Arapahoe Street to Denver's finest department store--the old Daniels & Fisher Stores Company --and began begging. After customers, clerks, and management became distressed, Father Koch told them softly, "Just give me $250 and I won't come back." As Father Declan Madden, OFM, wrote in his centennial history of St. Elizabeth's, "They did and he didn't." The Franciscan sisters who opened St. Elizabeth Grade School in September 1890, and St. Rose Residence for Women next door, also refined their vow of poverty into artful begging. Daily, they patrolled the bakeries, taverns, and shops of Larimer Street, collecting funds and nourishment for themselves and the poor of the city.

Father Madden, who was pastor at St. Elizabeth's until the Franciscans turned the parish over to the Capuchins, continued the tradition. Every day at 11 A.M. he would orchestrate a bologna sandwich breadline behind the church. He also raised money for his "Senior Roadrunners," as he called the elderly he took on bus tours around Colorado.

Thanks to the polished pleas of the Franciscans and the generosity of Colorado's German Catholics, St. Elizabeth's became the first church in the diocese to retire its debt. In keeping with church policy, this enabled St. Elizabeth's to be consecrated on June 8, 1902, with Bishop Matz presiding.

In 1908, Bishop Matz had to reconsecrate the church because its pastor, Leo Heinrichs, OFM, was murdered while saying the 6 A.M. Sunday Mass on February 23. Giuseppe Alia, an alleged anarchist, spat out the host at the communion rail and fired a bullet into the priest, who died while trying to return the sacred particles to his ciborium. Colorado Catholics proposed that the martyred priest, who had been noted for his piety and spiritual leadership, be canonized. The lengthy, complex procedure for canonization was begun but never finished, to the disappointment of many who promoted a widespread devotion to the memory of Father Leo.

At the request of Bishop Matz, the Franciscans at St. Elizabeth's staffed missions in priestless towns of eastern Colorado. Franciscan friars spent one-month stints on the high plains, devoting a day to each small town for Mass and the sacraments. The friars bummed rides on the Union Pacific out to its station stops at Watkins, Bennett, Strasburg, Byers, Deer Trail, Agate, River Bend, Limon, Hugo, Boyero, Aroya, Wild Horse, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne Wells. They would hop a ride back to Denver on the Rock Island line with stops at Burlington, Stratton, Flagler, Arriba, and Calhan.

In 1936, May Bonfils Berryman donated $150,000 to St. Elizabeth's to build the elegant monastary designed by Jacques Benedict for the Franciscans, with its fine arcade curving around the courtyard statue of St. Francis of Assisi--San Francisco to many of the Spanish surnamed parishioners moving into the neighborhood. Like the Irish before them, they teased the strict German Franciscans about their "Dutch Cleanser" confessions. Also like the Irish, these Hispanics wanted their own parish. Their prayers were answered in 1926 with the completion of St. Cajetan Church.

Auraria had three Catholic churches within a five-block area--an anomaly due to aspirations of three proud ethnic groups--until St. Leo's was demolished in 1965. Eight years later, Auraria Urban Renewal project proponents began demolishing the neighborhood. Preservationists and lovers of the two surviving Catholic churches struggled to convince the authority to spare these religious and ethnic monuments. Both churches were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In recognition of their special architectural and historic merits, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission likewise designated both structures.

Hispanic Catholics constructed a new St. Cajetan Church in 1975, and the old church became an auditorium for the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College, and the University of Colorado at Denver, the three schools sharing the 169-acre Auraria Higher Education Center campus.

St. Elizabeth's became the campus chapel. The old school and St. Rose Residence were demolished to build the St. Francis Interfaith Center. After a $250,000 restoration, St. Elizabeth's sparkles as it did in 1898. Once again, it is the only Catholic church in Denver's oldest neighborhood, named Auraria for the gold that first brought fortune seekers to Colorado. Now St. Elizabeth's offers a different reward to over 30,000 students, faculty, and staff on Colorado's largest campus.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver