Colorado Catholicism

By Thomas J. Noel

Savor this story of Colorado's largest, oldest and most diverse church in terms of membership, churches, schools, foster homes and hospitals. In this first historical overview of Colorado Catholicism, you will encounter the Franciscan Friars who first explored, mapped and wrote about Colorado and lectured the Ute Indians on the evils of polygamy.

In these pages lie characters such as Monsignor McMenamin, who stormed into drug stores to seize objectionable literature to burn outside on the sidewalk. Monsignor Smith courageously counteratacked the Ku Klux Klan, which controlled the Highest State during the 1920s. Although the Klan tried to entrap him with floosies, the feisty little red-headed cleric unhooded these spooks with exposées. These exposées in Smith's Denver Catholic Register helped to transform it from a sad sheet with a handful of readers to a national network with millions of readers.

While Smith made the Register the greatest success story of Colorado Catholicism, his patron John Kernan Mullen, a poor Irish miller, became the multi-millionaire angel of the archdiocese. More recently, during the 1980s, other characters have emerged, such as Father Gourley with his dramatic protests against nuclear weapons and handguns and Father Woody in a nationally televised role as the guardian angel of the homeless.

Author Tom Noel moves beyond the saloons, skid row, railroads, labor unions, banks, athletics, architecture and urban history he has surveyed in past prize-winning books, to tell for the first time the story of Colorado Catholicism. Over 200 illustrations, many of them virginal, enhance this saga.

Here you will find how armies of nuns toiled to build and staff hospitals, orphanages and schools for all races, colors and creeds. To the wild west, these gentle sisters brought finishing schools which transformed Colorado gals into ladies who could speak French, recite poetry, paint landscapes and compose music. In more recent decades, far fewer sisters serve Colorado, but in a far greater variety of ministries. Sister Cecilia Linenbrink started the first major Colorado literacy program. Sister Julia Benajamin's has become a streetwalker to salvage prostitutes. Sister Anna Koop founded and runs the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and casket factory.

Professor Noel sketches the history of 150 parishes and missions, with an eye for revealing anecdotes and architectural details. He shows how churches, like many of the wind-blasted, sun-burnt prairie farm towns and boom-and-bust mountain mining towns, struggled to stay alive, to avoid becoming just another of Colorado's 500 ghost towns.

Ethnic history emeges in the bitter conflicts between Irish miners and the French and German clergy, in urban neighborhoods where three Catholic Churches still sit within a few blocks of each other, in the heavenly voices of Presentation Parish's Vietnamese childrens' choir and in Curé D'Ars finger-snapping soul Masses. Laity have always played a key role in the church's civilizing and Christianizing mission, be it performing Masses by Mozart or sweeping out the church. Among them was Mary York, the first woman in Central City. She married Central's feared sheriff, converted him to Catholicism and started the church in that blast and pray town. Steve McNichols, the first Catholic elected Governor of Colorado despite snide anti-Catholicism, proceeded to do more than any other executive for the education, health and welfare of Coloradans.

Colorado's first private hospital, the orphanage and shrine founded by Mother Cabrini, the huge subterranean city of the dead at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, and the Cistercian Monastery hidden in the mountains above Aspen are among the institutions chronicled here. Although written as an anecdotal narrative, the book also serves as the only full history and reference guide to Colorado's Catholic heritage. Full chapters are devoted to each of the six bishops and archbishops of Denver, from Machebeuf the homely French missionary who built so much with so little, to Stafford the defender of traditional Catholicism. Here you will find Bishop Matz clashing violently with some of his gun-slinging priests, while suave Archbishop Vehr tamed the clergy and befriended governors, mayors and high society to build, in a Herculean effort to give every Colorado community a church and school, a total of 404 new or expanded structures.

The picture changes radically during the era of Archbishop Casey, a shy, sensitive man. He wrestled with the tumult wrought by Vatican II, by the Civil Rights Movement and by massive protest against U.S. militarism. Whereas his predecessors built Catholic schools, Archbishop Casey began the controversial task of closing schools and restructuring religious education.

From the day in 1967 when he arrived in Denver to find protestors camped on the Cathedral lawn until the day he died, Casey felt almost constant criticism, even while trying to reach out to this critics. Militant Chicanos, claiming to speak for the Hispanics who introduced Catholicism to Colorado, pointed out that in recent years the Spanish-surnamed have left the church by the thousands to join evangelical sects.

This history ends with Archbishop Stafford, who upon his arrival in 1985 began learning Spanish, joined a pilgrimage to the Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico and brought an order of cloistered Mexican nuns to the archdiocese. Stafford continues a long struggle, begun in 1857, to make the Church effective in a secular, materialistic state of restless people who have generally been looking for gold rather than for God.

Copyright © 1989 The Archdiocese of Denver