Capitol Hill’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception hosted a rare look into the church’s history on Thursday night. As repairs conclude on the high steeples facing Colfax Avenue, Rev. Ron Cattany looked back into the past, leading a crowd through more than 100 years of the congregation’s history and its place in the then-burgeoning neighborhood.
Listen to this tune played on the cathedral’s massive main organ as you read!
Denver’s first Catholic congregation was founded before Colorado became a state.
Joseph Machebeuf, a priest based in New Mexico, was sent to build a church in Denver in 1860. On Christmas Eve that year, Denver celebrated its first Mass in a windowless church called St. Mary’s at 15th and Stout Streets downtown. Machebeuf was named bishop of Colorado and Utah in 1868.
“Machebeuf did two things,” Cattany said. “He built churches and he acquired property.”
The bishop’s wheeling and dealing set the church up for a legacy of architectural influence in the city. At one point, Cattany said, Machebeuf bought and sold a plot of land at 15th and Tremont Streets that would become the old, griffin-guarded Arapahoe Courthouse. The church also opened one school where the Denver Dry Goods building sits today, and another that still exists at 18th Avenue and Grant street (and will soon become a boutique hotel).
But Machebeuf’s ambition also racked up a debt so large that the quality of his service had been called into question by the time he died.
“He was both hounded and humiliated by debtors,” Cattany said, so much that he thought a grand cathedral would never be built to replace the old church downtown. He was wrong.
A new cathedral was built for a growing community.
Just a few years after his death in 1889, Machebeuf’s congregation sold the property at 15th and Stout and used the money to buy the Capitol Hill property where they’d eventually build their cathedral. Though they managed to dig a hole for the foundation, a bad investment in a Cripple Creek mining operation delayed construction. The cornerstone wouldn’t be laid until 1906.
But the building’s “real history” would begin in 1908, Cattany said, when church officials “pulled Denver’s business leaders together” to aid in their fundraising efforts. Among them was J.K. Mullen, founder of the Colorado Milling and Elevator Company, and J.K. Brown, spouse of the famous and “unsinkable” Molly Brown.
The cathedral was completed in 1912 for a cost of $500,000. Cattany said it’s recognized as having the most square footage of leaded stained glass of any church in the country. The 75 windows were manufactured by F.X. Zettler, a master German glassmaker whose factory and formula were bombed in World War II and lost forever. Priceless and irreplaceable today, they cost only $34,000 when they were purchased.
The building was also supposed to be twice as long. Architects had to change their plans when the neighbor just north of the lot refused to sell. Rumor has it, Cattany said, the unwilling landowner was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Their inability to acquire the extra space is the reason the cathedral’s southern end comes so close to Colfax.
In 1979 it was declared a basilica, a distinction as the regional Catholic headquarters. Its distinction as the church’s seat in the area over time attracted the likes of Pope Paul II and Mother Theresa to its services.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s the center of the neighborhood,” Cattany said.
Since its founding with the support of local leaders, he said, the building has been a center of both religious and secular life for Capitol Hill. Cattany points to the cathedral’s proximity to some of the city’s worst crime-ridden areas and its role in helping tame Colfax’s wicked reputation. Their sandwich line, he said, feeds 145 of Denver’s homeless each day. In 2015, at the request of the police, church officials added fencing and demolished a line of planter boxes that used to attract drug deals.
“We’re making the major investment to improve East Colfax,” Cattany said, noting vacant commercial properties nearby. “I would like to see, over time, the commercial sector make the same investment.”
Cattany told Denverite that it’s unusual for a cathedral to be so invested in the non-religious life of their community, but he said he’s proud to play such a role.
“It’s an incredible place,” he said, “filled with a lot of grace.”
Contextual update: The history tour was put on as a fundraiser for Creatio, a Catholic 501c3 that works “to address environmental and human issues on a deeper level.”