Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel


In the storefront bakery and home of the Stephen Wirtzes at 717 West 4th Avenue, on November 18, 1883, Percy A. Phillips, the chancellor of the diocese, gathered about twenty-five families to celebrate St. Joseph's first Mass.

Bishop Machebeuf blessed the new parish in a predominantly working-class neighborhood. St. Joseph's, an offshoot of St. Elizabeth's to the north, would later be subdivided into St. Francis de Sales to the south and Presentation to the west. But in 1883, St. Joseph parish embraced all of Denver southwest of Cherry Creek and south of West Colfax Avenue.

Father Percy, a Canadian who came to Denver in delicate health, turned over the arduous work of parish building in 1886 to Thomas H. Malone. Father Malone, an intellectual New Yorker come West as a health seeker, soon graduated from the small frame church Father Percy and his parishioners built on West 4th Avenue near Gallapago Street in 1884. Booming growth in the neighborhood and the church inspired Father Malone and his parishioners to undertake a grander church in 1886, at 600 Galapago Street. That Christmas they celebrated the first Mass in a wooden structure that evolved, over the next three years, into a grand brick edifice, fifty-by-120 feet, containing a basement school with a large church upstairs.

After the dedication ceremony on November 10, 1889, the Sisters of Mercy moved their school from the old frame structure, where they had begun teaching that spring, into the basement. Partitions separated the subterranean school into four rooms where two nuns tackled classes of as many as ninety pupils. As in other schools of the "Mercies," Sister Mary Evangelist (who would later become the order's Colorado superior) used Reed's speller, David & Peck's arithmetic, Barnes' geography, Sadlier's history, Harvey's grammar, Ray's mental arithmetic, and Hutchinson's physiology.

Flush times for St. Joseph's--and for the city of Denver--ended abruptly with the crash of 1893. Parishioners, many of whom were thrown out of work, were hard put to finish paying for their $50,000 church/school. To make matters worse, Bishop Matz charged that Father Malone had sunk parish funds into his newspaper, The Colorado Catholic, an ancestor of the Denver Catholic Register. Malone counter-attacked Bishop Matz, using his newspaper to publicize this embarrassing ecclesiastical squabble. According to the 1988 parish history by assistant pastor Stephen Rehrauer, CSsR, over 100 parishioners sued Father Malone for $12,000 missing from the building fund. Bishop Matz had asked them not to sue and became furious when they proceeded. On May 5, 1894, he angrily excommunicated both Father Malone and the parishioners who were suing him. The bishop then convoked the third synod of the Denver diocese and ousted Malone as pastor of St. Joseph's.

To the rescue came the Redemptorists, a European order that began missionary work in the United States in 1832. The Redemptorists assumed all parish debts and sent fathers Daniel Mullane and John McGough, CSsR (Congregatio Sanctissimi Redemptoris), out from St. Louis to take charge of St. Joseph's on November 19, 1894. At that time, it was legally renamed St. Joseph Redemptorist parish. Much to the relief of the bishop of Denver and the parishioners, the Redemptorists have operated the parish to this day. The order also began working as chaplains at nearby Denver General Hospital and making sick calls throughout the city.

Under a number of different Redemptorist pastors, St. Joseph's evolved into one of the largest parishes. A rectory (1895), a pipe organ (1902) for the choir loft, and two side altars (1906) beside the Gothic high altar indicated that this parish, born in a bakery and beset by poverty, chaos, and scandal, had finally found stability. In 1914, St. Joseph's completed the long-postponed steeple and bell tower at Sixth and Galapago, with a shorter north steeple. Three years later, the parish bought the Mormon mission across 6th Avenue for $6,200 and remodeled it as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy.

St. Joseph School, which had been squeezing kindergarten through ninth-grade pupils into the church basement, built a $29,000, brick, three-story facility at 601 Fox Street in 1908. A high school program initiated that fall featured a practical business curriculum designed to make its graduates employable. Students' morals and behavior were not overlooked: the parish Annual cautioned them that a "Saturday night dance is a pitiful preparation for the Lord's Day."

Many parishioners worked at the nearby railyards, particularly at the Burnham Shops of the Denver & Rio Grande. Fluctuating fortunes of the railroads and its workers led St. Joseph's, in 1918, to abolish pew rent. Better times in the 1920s enabled the parishioners to collaborate with the Redemptorist fathers in building a beautiful new rectory on the east side of the church. Jacques Benedict designed this exquisite medieval-style monastery with the elegant arcade along 6th Avenue.

The school overflowed in the 1920s when partitioned classrooms were reinstalled in the church basement. The parish also bought three cottages on 6th Avenue and converted them to classrooms. Despite the economic hardships of the Great Depression that began in 1929, parishioners continued to raise money for a new school at 6th and Fox--a $38,000, two-story pink brick structure, designed by John K. Monroe and dedicated by Bishop Vehr on March 21, 1937.

During World War II, St. Joseph parish more than proved its patriotism. The church made itself a center for USO activities to comfort and entertain the military. Nuns and parish women taught school children to knit, quilt, and make scrap books that were sent to fighting men overseas. The school's Genes Club, made up of future secretaries and stenographers, sent letters of encouragement to the many men of St. Joseph's at the front. Students also worked on scrap metal and war material drives as well as war bond sales.

Parishioners donated much of the labor and materials for the new gym completed in 1950, and the basketball team became the pride of the parish and the fear of the city. Three houses on the corners of 6th Avenue and Fox Street were purchased in a $20,000, 1957 expansion project; two were converted to additional convent space and the third into a kitchen and cafeteria for the grade and high schools.

Spanish-surnamed families emerged as a parish majority during the 1950s. The Redemptorists responded with a Sunday Mass and Bible lessons in Spanish and free English-language instruction. In 1957, Joseph Meunier, CSsR, launched a sign language Mass that made St. Joseph's a center for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The parish fought archdiocesan plans to close its high school but surrendered in 1973. Afterwards, the basement of the school was remodeled as a practice area for St. Joseph's Boxing Club. The old Mormon mission, which had been converted to a convent, was recycled again in 1983, becoming an emergency shelter for the homeless operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Declining elementary school enrollment led the parish to sell the grade school building and move classes into the remodeled former high school. In front of the handsomely rehabilitated school at 623 Fox Street, a 1987 sign read: "New St. Joseph's School now accepting students kindergarten to 8th grade. Negotiated Tuition. Christian values."

In 1982, on the eve of the church's centennial, its long and colorful history and architectural significance as a jewel of the historic Auraria and Baker neighborhoods were given national recognition, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For much of its life, St. Joseph's has been a poor, struggling urban parish. Brightly handpainted wooden flowers adorn the hardwood bannister of the creaky stairs leading into the antique church with its glorious stained glass Gothic windows shedding colored light on wooden altars painted to resemble marble.

LeRoy Burke, CSsR, an associate pastor, emceed St. Joseph's "grocery bingo" Friday afternoons after the free lunch provided daily by St. Joseph's and the Senior Citizens Nutrition Program. Besides feeding people, Father Burke used bingo as a way to "get folks out of their homes and apartments to meet people."

"In material terms, we have always been a poor parish," mused Robert Halter, CSsR, the pastor at St. Joseph's since 1981, adding:

Our richness lies in a long history of serving the community, and in the courageous and generous spirit of our congregation. They enable us to begin our second century with that same Christian hope that led to the formation of the parish long ago in a humble neighborhood bakery.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver