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Westminster

Parishioners of ‘little church’ strive to keep doors open

Archdiocese ends Masses at Our Lady of Visitation, which drew about 100 people from across Front Range

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For more than 70 years, parishioners of Our Lady of Visitation, a mission church at 2531 W. 65th Place in Westminster, have gathered from across the Front Range every Sunday for a one-hour Mass in the small, pink building where generations of families have worshipped.

But that tradition ended on the last Sunday in April following the Archdiocese of Denver’s decision, parishioners said, to close the building to services and use it instead as an event center.

Upset parishioners — who want the archdiocese to reinstate at least one Sunday Mass a month say the archdiocese gave them ambiguous and inconsistent reasons for shuttering the church doors.

“They said there was a shortage of priests,” said Federico Peña, a former Denver mayor who has attended the weekly Mass since marrying his wife in the church 13 years ago. “Then they said it was in our best spiritual interest to attend churches in our own neighborhoods. I believe a Catholic church that is losing parishioners would be happy that people are willing to make the sacrifice to make the drive to go to a little mission church.”

The Archdiocese of Denver declined to comment on the closing of Our Lady of Visitation.

“We’re not really answering any more questions about this matter,” said Karna Swanson, executive director of communications for the archdiocese. “We prefer to defer all questions to the Bishop’s letter and Fact Sheet.”

A May 5 letter to Our Lady council members from Archbishop Samuel Aquila describes a difficult decision based on changing demographics and the challenge of how to best meet the needs of the Catholic population.

“Across the territory of the Archdiocese I am responsible for 148 different locations that serve over 550,000 Catholics,” Aquila said in the letter. “The city is greatly expanding, all of us recognize the dramatic change in demographics, and it is challenging to accommodate the Catholics in the areas of growth. At the same time, it makes more sense to integrate a small mission community into nearby established parishes.”

Notification of last Mass

Our Lady of Visitation is a simple flat-roofed, pink brick building on a dead-end portion of 65th Place just east of Federal Boulevard Established in the 1940s in donated street cars, it was served initially by traveling priests. Parishioners donated land and built the church in 1952, according to archives from the Denver Catholic Register, the state’s largest Catholic newspaper. In recent times, other than Sunday Masses, the church also celebrated other sacraments, such as baptisms, confirmations and funerals, and held an annual bazaar that was its primary fundraiser.

At the church’s Nov. 16 parish council meeting, three priests from the archdiocese notified council members that the April 30 Mass would be the last held at the church, said Sandi Garcia, who has attended Our Lady for more than 30 years and was on the church’s financial committee.

Peña and several parishioners say the archdiocese subsequently refused to meet with church council members or parishioners to discuss options for keeping the Sunday Mass, which was celebrated weekly by one of three priests sent by Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a parish with 3,000 parishioners about two miles away, also in Westminster.

“It wasn’t until months later, when we scheduled a press conference and a protest outside the new residence of Archbishop Aquila,” Peña said, “that they finally started returning our calls.”

That protest took place April 26. A petition with 1,250 signatures also was submitted to Aquila, who noted in his May letter that since attendance at Our Lady Masses has averaged 108 people for the past 10 years, the petition included signatures from individuals not regularly affiliated with the church.

Chancellor David Uebbing of the Denver Archdiocese, on a voicemail message in response to questions for comment from Colorado Community Media, said the archdiocese would only speak “about the history of the mission.”

Is it a parish or a mission?

That word — mission — is a sticking point between Our Lady parishioners and the archdiocese.

A mission is defined as a designated space where some of the sacraments, such as Mass, can be celebrated, according to the website Catholic Answers. A parish covers a larger geographical area and may include other facilities, such as a rectory or parochial school. It also provides programs and organizations in which congregants can participate.

The fact sheet that Swanson from the archdiocese referred to, which can be found on the archdiocese’s website, states that Our Lady of Visitation “is a mission of Holy Trinity Parish. It is not a standalone parish” and it “will remain a property of Holy Trinity Parish.”

Garcia, however, contends those statements are misleading.

“OLV (Our Lady of Visitation) was received as a parish by Archbishop Urban Vehr in 1952, when our current building was constructed,” Garcia said. Articles submitted by the church to the Colorado Historical Society detail that occasion, she said.

“OLV was built on donated land, using donated labor. We have always paid taxes to the archdiocese as a parish,” Garcia said. “We were placed administratively under Holy Trinity in 1958, but we have never received money from the archdiocese, (and) have continued to pay into the archdiocese.”

‘Intent was for a church’

The church’s 2016 Annual Financial Report to the Archbishop of Denver identifies Our Lady as Parish 027 and shows it paid an annual parish service fee and assessment computation.

Peña, Garcia and other parishioners say they believe the archdiocese is trying to fold Our Lady’s property and assets into Holy Trinity for financial rather than faith-based reasons. Peña said he has engaged the help of attorneys to dispute the archdiocese’s right to take the land.

Four property deeds show that the land was donated for the purpose of building a church, said Peña, adding that two of them “state the land is being transferred to the archdiocese on behalf of” the church.

Benito Garcia and his wife Eliosa, parents of eight children, donated the original parcel of land adjacent to their home on which the street cars could be permanently placed.

Church member fundraising efforts later purchased two additional parcels of land, Peña said.

“The argument we’re making is that the intent was for a church, which includes Mass,” Peña said. “We believe the intention of Mr. Garcia has been broken, and the land should be returned to the donors.”

Sandi Garcia, who is not related to Benito Garcia, also points out the church was built through donations.

“We ... have never taken a dime from the archdiocese,” Garcia said. “We have been denied authorization to make repairs to the church, even though we have the money to do it … The archdiocese has made no commitment to keep the land available as a church.”

Our Lady has $242,000 in reserves, accumulated over the years through fundraisers such as the annual bazaar, which in the past has generated more than $25,000, Garcia said.

With the church’s closing, Holy Trinity receives all land and cash reserves, according to Garcia.

Efforts to reach Father John Paul Leyba at Holy Trinity for comment were unsuccessful.

Parishioners devoted to church

As for the shortage of priests being a reason for closing, Peña and Garcia said they have found retired priests who are willing to say Mass each Sunday.

Brief negotiations in April between Our Lady and the Archdiocese of Denver included a proposal for one monthly Mass to be celebrated at Our Lady, with members attending their neighborhood churches on the other Sundays, Peña said. But when Peña and council members requested more information, such as who would control the church’s money and whether they could make some repairs, Peña said the archdiocese pulled that option from the table.

Bishop Jorge Rodríguezwho assists Archbishop Aquila, wrote about the situation in a May 12 article in the Denver Catholic Register.

“Our Lady of Visitation Mission has had a regular attendance of about 100 people each Sunday for the past 10 years,” he wrote. “The majority of those who attend Mass at the mission do not live in the area: coming from many corners of the Archdiocese, the community gathers at the mission because it is there that they reconnect with their roots, with their history and family. But obviously, attending Mass on Sunday is not enough to experience a full parish life …”

He goes on to say: “Some people from Our Lady of Visitation have organized events to pressure public opinion, such as press conferences, protests and petition. Personally, I think that fostering division is never good, but I can understand the pain that those brothers and sisters of ours are going through.”

Those statements frustrate Peña, Garcia and the other parishioners.

“He accuses us of division?” Garcia said. “We purposely attend OLV out of love and devotion to the little church. And out of devotion to our faith. How can he say scattering our congregation is not division?”

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