“Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” Thus starts the battle between the nearly 9-foot Philistine, Goliath, and the youthful David, who would go on to become the king of the Israelites, as reported in the Book of Samuel.
Such a modern day match up is currently brewing as the powerful Archdiocese of Denver has threatened to close one of the smallest churches in the Denver metropolitan area. Our Lady of Visitation Church is not going quietly. Rather, the scrappy Davidian congregation is digging in, preparing to fight for existence of the church they built with their own hands.
Last week’s edition of La Voz featured a profile of Our Lady of Visitation Church, the modest congregation in Goat Hill; so modest that the Catholic Church doesn’t even consider it a church, but rather a mere “mission.” Assuming the classification was not a racially motivated slight against its Mexican-American founding, the designation may have been given to strip the church of any internal recourse from Archdiocese action.
The church council’s attempts at diplomacy have fallen flat. Repeated requests for meetings have been ignored and Archdiocese personnel have been reluctant to provide any sort of rationale for wanting to close the church. Last week, when a meeting with the Archbishop, Monsignor in charge of personnel and regional priest was finally arranged, the Archdiocese representatives failed to show. Three chairs set up for the guests remained vacant. Our Lady of Visitation parishioners took that not only as a sign of lack of respect but evidence that the Catholic Church is planning to close their building without a conversation.
Parishioner Cindy L. Peña offers “Our Lady of Visitation has humbly served the residents of Goat Hill since 1949. Latino families have worshiped at Our Lady of Visitation and sustained the church for decades with land, free labor, contributions and other means of support. Not only is Our Lady of Visitation profitable, it contributes to the Archdiocese. OLV’s land was donated by Benito Garcia, whose daughter and great-granddaughters along with the parish members are committed to preserving it for the intended use. Samuel Aquila, Archbishop of Denver has issued an edict for the church closure, citing a shortage of priests. But eliminating one mass a week will not solve the priest shortage. He has refused to personally meet with us to discuss options. RTD’s nearby light rail expansion has increased the property value of OLV’s land. I hope the decision to close OLV isn’t related.”
As first stated by the Archdiocese, four churches in small communities were on the chopping block, slated for closure because of financial instability, a shortage of available priests and heavy administrative burden. Members on the church council recently learned that theirs is the only church still on the list for closure even though each of the concerns cited by the Archdiocese have been directly addressed.
At Our Lady of Visitation, the annual bazaar is one of the best attended and most profitable in the Denver area, assuring the coffers provide months of operating income reserve beyond that required by the Catholic Church. The church has also managed to sock away thousands of dollars for needed repairs; repairs on hold because they require approval of the Archdiocese. Financial instability is not a problem at the church.
In addition, Visitation Church Council was able to secure agreement from retired Denver priests willing to rotate through the building to serve the once a week mass, but as of yet have not been allowed by the church hierarchy. Finally, Visitation offered to fund a position to cover any additional administrative costs incurred by keeping the building open. It’s hard for the small church to figure out why they haven’t convinced the Catholic Church of their solvency, especially when the Archdiocese refuses to meet with the church council.
“As a member of the parish council at Our Lady of Visitation I am still hopeful that Samuel Aquila, Denver’s Archbishop, will find it in his heart to grant us a meeting to present our appeal and reasons for keeping our little church open,” said Jerome DeHerrera, Council Member.
The answer may lie not in the financial burden that Visitation represents but rather how valuable the land has become surrounding their building. Located near 65th and Federal, the church is on prime real estate that has the potential of becoming “transit-oriented development” serving commuters on a new, nearby light rail line. The Regional Transportation District’s Gold Line is an 11 mile track connecting Wheat Ridge, Arvada and Adams County to Denver. Seven stations are included from Union Station to Wheat Ridge including the Clear Creek station, within half a dozen blocks of the church. Scheduled to open last year, the line is on hold until technology issues can be sorted. Meanwhile, property values in the region continue to soar.
A 1993 study of Portland, Oregon after light rail development showed a 10 percent increase in land within 500 meters of stations. A 1996 study of the San Francisco BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System) showed rents increased 10-15 percent within one quarter mile of stations, and a 1991 study of Southern New Jersey showed a 10% increase in homes served by a rail line. A similar impact is expected for property served by Denver area light rail.
The irony of this David versus Goliath story may be Goliath’s embarrassment of riches. While Pope Francis moved into his modest flat in Vatican City and urged Church personnel to live modestly, the Archdiocese of Denver was busy building a new multi-million residential complex. CNN revealed in their 2014 study of Catholic leadership living quarters that Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s abode would cost $1.3 million of the total $6.5 million complex cost. This is a far cry from former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput who blushed when accepting visitors at his modest home on that same Denver campus. Now Archbishop of Philadelphia, Chaput sold the Archdiocese mansion for $10 million, rather than live in it. Archdiocese spokersperson, Ken Gavin told CNN, “He felt it was not really necessary to live in a residence that large. He wanted to live more simply.”
Meanwhile, Our Lady of Visitation Church holds fundraisers like Cooking with Abuelas, and the annual summer bazaar. According to parishioner Sandi Garcia who posted on the church’s Facebook page, “Men and women of meager means built this church into what it is today, a self-sustaining, vibrant community and anchor to our Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado roots. On donated land and with donated labor, this church was literally built ONE BURRITO AT A TIME.”
This is not to say that the mission is too modest to defend itself. Ever reliant on parishioner volunteerism, the church’s team of advisors is comprised of some of the brightest minds and most politically connected figures in the state including top Denver Public School’s attorney Jerome DeHerrera, top City of Denver attorney, Crystal DeHerrera, former General Manager of Channel 7, Cindy Peña and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. Along with a cadre of downtown Denver legal supporters at the ready to defend the underdog, this story’s David will show up at the fight with formidable resources.
The Denver Archdiocese did not return phone calls.