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

Posted 6/5/17

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 …

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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

Posted

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?”

Comments

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Sandi G.

Thank you Colorado Community Media for writing about this critical issue! This is not just an issue for Catholics, it is an issue for anyone who believes in social justice and church justice. This little church has done EVERYTHING the right way. Built/maintained/loved and cared for by its congregation, this is a well-run and stable parish. This church is a cornerstone of the Hispano/Latino/Chicano community. Yet under false pretense and with contrived reasoning, a powerful archbishop and his 'communications people' can endeavor to destroy exactly the sacramental life that they have vowed to promulgate - these are real, actual vows that they are breaking by withholding sacraments. One mass per week accounts for a mere .1% of all weekly masses in the Denver metro. That infinitesimal fraction is the justification, REALLY?! No one in their right mind would consider this miniscule resources savings to have any benefit whatsoever. The Archdiocese never ONCE engaged in a true conversation nor a true dialog with this congregation, and now they stick to their "No Comment" and "We're not answering any more questions". What?! This is an abuse of power which God himself will adjudicate.

Monday, June 12 | Report this
Mike Wilzoch

You would think the Archdiocese would celebrate a community that is so ardently connected with their Church, has been totally self sufficient for 70 years, and are well known and revered in the Latino community. Not everyone likes a mega church, especially if the faith community your families have built for decades is set to be "absorbed" by one. The rationale originally given by AB Aquila is disgracefully dishonest: a shortage of priests. They have retired priests lined up for the one mass a week they need, but the AB has threatened the loss of their ability to say mass if they do. Why such heavy handed disrespect? Could it be that the parishioners have frugally saved nearly a quarter million dollars, and have land and buildings that the AB had appraised at over a million dollars more (will be even higher when the light rail moves nearby) that will be "folded in" to the larger church and the Archdiocese? It's the only reason to treat faithful Catholics who cost the Archdiocese nothing with such disrespect, refusing to even meet with them for 6 months after issuing his decree.

All the holy rhetoric aside, this is just another example of the rich and powerful taking from hard working families, with a total disregard for the devastating effect on the faithful of having their community and legacy erased. Aquila would do well to remember that he is the servant of the people, and not their master. Treating faithful Catholics like so many dry leaves to be swept from his lawn (a $6.5 million palace, placing him on CNN's top ten list of high living archbishops) is a sin. He might recall that Jesus washed the feet of visitors to his house, who were the salt of the earth like the good people at OLV. Being led by yet another bishop acting more like a corporate raider than a servant to the faithful might explain why so many Latinos are increasingly choosing other faiths over Catholicism over the last decades.

Why not just leave them alone to worship as they please, without the heavy hand of a high hat bureaucrat lording over them? If the AB is too high up and too far away to show these faithful working families even the courtesy that I show to strangers, maybe he should acquaint himself with the words of the founder of the faith..."that which you do to the least of my brothers is that which you do to me."

Friday, June 16 | Report this