As Loretto Heights transforms, the cemetery of its buried founders moves out of town

Denver’s Catholic congregations are shrinking, and they need to ensure the Sisters of Loretto are taken care of for the long haul.
6 min. read
Gary Schaaf oversees digging into Mother Pancratia Bonfils’ grave as she and 61 other nuns are moved from the historic Sisters of Loretto cemetery at Loretto Heights. July 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Sister Mary Nelle Gage watched as a backhoe dug into the old cemetery. All of the nuns buried here were Sisters of Loretto, who worked and attended the college in the looming stone building on the hill in Harvey Park South.

While some died long before Gage found her way to the school in the 1960s, others were still working administrators when she started classes. She knew both Sisters Frances Marie Walsh and Cecille Reddin before they passed and were laid to rest in this corner of the 72-acre lot. Now, she was present as they were moved from the ground and out of Denver entirely.

Sister Mary Nelle Gage holds a book of each of the nuns buried at Loretto Heights. July 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

While a new development was planned around the burial ground, the Archdiocese of Denver decided it would be best to relocate these 62 sisters to Wheat Ridge.

In the late 1800s, Mother Pancratia Bonfils selected the site that would become the Loretto Heights Catholic boarding academy. The school lasted until the 1980s, when it was used for other purposes, then closed fully in 2017. In 2019, Denver officials approved a plan to transform the campus into a new metro district, dense with affordable housing and townhomes.

"Despite the fact that the developer really was trying to work with us to perpetually allow us to keep going here, we just thought it would be too hard to protect these ladies into the future," Gary Schaaf, executive director of mortuaries and cemeteries for the Archdiocese, told us. "You might make it pretty for ten years, but what's it going to be like in 100?"

A view of the cemetery on Feb. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

For so long, the sisters rested in relative isolation. The new townhomes would come in too close for comfort, only a few yards from the iron fence that once surrounded the headstones. Schaaf said the living Sisters of Loretto and Diocese staff struggled to decide what to do. Nobody wanted to move the graves, but, over time, they realized something had to be done.

Gage said the decision was about more than proximity to the new homes.

"The plan for overseeing this seemed too tentative," she said. "Simultaneously, our religious congregation is diminishing in number and advancing in age. So, in 20 years, if kids come in and they're doing some unsavory activities in the cemetery, who would someone call?"

Experts and volunteers move 62 nuns from the historic Sisters of Loretto cemetery at Loretto Heights. July 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A 2021 Pew Research study found Americans have increasingly identified as nonreligious, with drops in protestant Christianity driving most of the change. While they didn't find that Catholic affiliation fell in the same way, Gage said high-level participation has dropped in Denver. But while the country is becoming more secular, she hopes Loretto Heights' future won't be completely devoid of spirituality - even if the people who founded it will no longer be present on its grounds.

"Our hope is that, in our conversations with the developer, with the community, as the planning for this new development is taking place, that we have had some influence on the principles that will guide it," she told us.

While she's not doing any digging, Sister Mary Nelle Gage has been present for every day of the project to relocate Loretto Heights' historic cemetery. July 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Affordable housing and homes for older Denverites are part of that vision, she added. So is a community center that she said will host a food pantry and mental health services. The buildings themselves, and the statue of Mary adorning the main building, will also remain.

"We want to have reminders," Gage said.

The 62 sisters, including Mother Pancratia, will soon join 22 other nuns at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, which was once a farm owned by Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, who called the Sisters of Loretto to Denver in 1864.

Most everyone is happy with the careful way the nuns are being relocated. Not everyone is happy to see Loretto Heights change.

Audrey Theisen grew up near the old Catholic school and has shown up every day to pray over the cemetery as anthropologists and volunteers exhume the graves.

"I'm very glad the sisters are being moved where they will rest in peace and be taken care of forever," she said.

But the broader project doesn't sit well with her. While Theisen said she generally doesn't have a problem with change in the city, this project stings.

"I think this is sickening, to tell you the truth," she said. "The disturbance of the peace, the change, the development. I don't know why we have to have all of these homes. Why can't it just remain 72 acres of just pure beauty?"

Audrey Theisen prays over the Sisters of Loretto cemetery at Loretto Heights as experts and volunteers move 62 nuns from the site. July 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Schaaf said the Diocese is generally fine with the development, but the decision to move the graves is a signal that Loretto Heights' fate didn't pan out as expected.

"This was the anchor of the deposit of faith that would stay here forever. And then the world changes, so we're kind of responding to that. In a way, we're going to come rescue these ladies from what's happening," he said.

But City Council member Kevin Flynn, whose district includes the site, said he's seen a lot of support for the project, which represents an important opportunity to alleviate Denver's housing woes.

"This city is growing, and my community has to share in the additional housing that's needed for working families. If we don't accommodate a moderate amount of housing growth in these areas of opportunity, my district will face the pressures of densification of existing neighborhoods, like we've seen radically changing the character of other parts of town," he told us in an email.

This old chapel inside Loretto Heights' historic Pancratia Hall in 2021, before it was turned into affordable housing.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Plus, Flynn said the historic buildings wouldn't have lasted long without some kind of investment.

"Those who don't like the project have to face the reality that without it, the campus would have been a boarded up eyesore facing increasing decay and vandalism," he wrote. "Loretto Heights, once a near-abandoned failed institution, will be a community asset. Trying to put it under a glass jar and prevent any changes would have loved it to death. It's much too beautiful a place to let it die."

While Gage said she has mixed feelings about all of these changes, she told us she's glad her sisters are being handled delicately. It's also been an opportunity to celebrate the lives of women who helped shape her life and this city.

"You know, they were small people - we see from the bones that are exhumed - but mighty giants," she told us. "We stand on their shoulders."

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