More than two years after being shut down by the Archdiocese of Denver, parishioners at Our Lady of Visitation are fighting to reinstate services at the Catholic church by appealing a previous ruling to the church’s most powerful tribunal.
Following a decree from the Vatican handed down in December, the church, which sits north of Denver off of Federal Boulevard on West 65th Place, is allowed to host two mass services every year. It hosted a mass last Friday evening to commemorate the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It hosted another mass in March to commemorate its founding.
Outside the church Friday, an odd sight welcomed parishioners: two Adams County sheriffs. Their presence puts a point on the tension between some Our Lady of Visitation parishioners and Holy Trinity, a church up the road in Westminster where Our Lady of Visitation members were encouraged to worship. Archdiocese of Denver spokesperson Mark Haas said the sheriffs were there out of an abundance of caution prompted by rude and hostile remarks previously made against Holy Trinity.
One parishioner walked out of the church and approached one of the sheriffs, sternly but politely asking him what they were doing there.
“We’re here in case something happens,” the sheriff said.
The parishioner, looking confused, assured him nothing would happen at the church.
Parishioners, most of whom are Latino, want it to open full time for the weekly Sunday mass residents from across Denver enjoyed for decades.
Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña is lending his influence and connections to the parishioners’ efforts. It’s all very personal for him: He started attending mass at the church about 15 years ago, and even ran a pickle booth during their annual bazaar. He was also present at Friday’s mass.
“The land (for the church) was donated by Latinos, the money was raised for Latinos,” Peña said. He estimated about 80 to 100 people would regularly attend Sunday mass.
Peña, who is retired, said supporters have appealed the decision handed down in December from the Congregation for the Clergy. They initially argued that the Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila erred in closing services at Our Lady of Visitation, but the Congregation for the Clergy sided with Aquila. Our Lady of Visitation supporters are now appealing that decision to the Apostolic Signatura, a kind of supreme court for the church located in Rome.
“We fully intend to appeal that ruling and to argue that we should be returned to our original status, which was only one mass a week,” Peña said.
Advocates fighting for the reinstatement of services at the church now have the backing of five attorneys in Colorado — including pro-bono work from the powerful firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck — and at least one attorney in Rome.
“The Archdiocese has no clue what they’re up against,” Peña said.
The Archdiocese of Denver gave two primary reasons for shutting down the church: low attendance and scarcity of available priests, according to Haas. Even before services were discontinued, Haas said, it operated under the much larger Holy Trinity Church up the road in Westminster. Our Lady of Visitation’s final mass before weekly services were discontinued took place in March 2017.
“We are committed to following whatever the Vatican says,” Haas said.
Peña said it’s worth asking whether race played a role in the decision, mentioning other examples of the city’s discriminatory history against Latinos. He recalled the massive Auraria campus project that displaced hundreds of Latino families from central Denver in the late 1960s.
“Remember that there was a time in Colorado where Latinos were not allowed to sit in the middle of a church,” Peña said. “The history of Latino churches in Denver is not a good one.”
Two years into the fight, neither side has shown signs of backing down.
A note published by the archdiocese in May 2017 and written by Bishop Jorge Rodriguez described the area’s rich history and cultural significance. Rodriguez disagreed with the suggestion that anything discriminatory was taking place.
“This cannot be honestly considered, particularly in these times when the archdiocese is making a great effort to serve the Spanish-speaking immigrant community,” Rodriguez wrote in the note.
Haas said the archdiocese felt parishioners would be given more access and education opportunities by combining parishioners with Holy Trinity, which Haas said serves about 3,000 people and had always been affiliated with Our Lady of Visitation. the move “made more sense,” he said.
“There’s obviously is a great tradition at Our Lady of Visitation. (There are) very strong cultural ties,” Haas said.
Peña said parishioners felt shocked when the archdiocese abruptly announced they would be effectively closing the church in 2017.
“There was no notice, there was no discussion,” Peña said.
Conversations were started — including private meetings Peña said were held in an attempt to solve things and keep the story from becoming public — but they fell apart. Haas said things grew “contentious” once everything was public, but Peña doesn’t agree with that characterization.
“It turned into this public back-and-forth,” Haas said. “Instead of wanting to work with us they wanted to appeal their decision to the Vatican.”
There was an initial attempt at a compromise, including offering services once a month. But Haas said parishioners rejected the idea.
Peña and others believe another reason for the church’s shutdown was an increase in the property value after a rail line was installed near the church. Haas said there was never an intention to sell the building then and there is no intention to sell the building now.
Haas said the building hasn’t closed. Space is still made available, usually for youth retreats and for rosary prayers. The building’s parking lot was vacant last week, a few days before the Friday mass, with little signs of any activity around the adobe-colored building.
Haas said he doesn’t want Catholics forgetting about the church’s purpose.
“Sometimes what gets lost in this is the beauty of the Catholic Church,” Haas said. “No matter where I go … they are truly one universal church.”
Greeting old friends and fellow parishioners outside the church he once served in, retired Deacon Lloyd Quintana said he still has faith that things will go their way. He once stood before people through the various stages of life: baptisms, marriages, burials. To him, it wasn’t just a parish. It was a family.
“We haven’t given up hope, you know?” he said Friday. “It hurts. But thank God we get to come at least twice, now, a year.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect first name for Mark Haas.