DENVER — Like so many parts of the Denver metro, Loretto Heights is currently filled with the sights and sounds of construction.
Workers and machinery are clearing the way for new housing in the shadow of the historic Loretto Heights campus, which has sit atop a hill in southwest Denver for more than a century. But before the foundations and drywalls can go up, a very important project must be finished, with special reverence and care — the exhumation of 62 nuns from the Sisters of Loretto order, buried in a small plot of land on the far north side of the campus.
“It’s best to arrange, while you still can, perpetual care for them,” said Sister Mary Nelle Gage with the order, who has been instrumental in the project for her fellow sisters. “So, we’re exhuming 62 sisters, and then we’ll rebury them at Mount Olivet a little bit later in the summer.”
Gage fell in love with the Sisters of Loretto order first as their student at the Loretto Heights campus more than half a century ago. Their “big smiles” and passion for education were magnetic — and Gage says the fact that this exhumation project is now being completed with the help of professors and students of nearby universities is a fitting tribute.
“They spent their lives teaching,” she said. “And now, in death, they are teaching. Amazing.”
Dr. Lauren Hosek, a professor of anthropology at CU Boulder, says this project has given her and her students the opportunity to practice archaeological pursuits with reverence and respect.
“I had no idea, maybe two months ago, that this even existed,” Hosek said. “And now, here I am looking up as much as I can about Loretto Heights and learning all of this stuff. It’s neat to see how fast this all came together and being a part of it.”
This exhumation is a bittersweet project for Sister Mary Nelle Gage, and for the community around her. Neighbors in the area have told her they will miss visiting what they hold to be a sacred space, a sentiment she shares. On the other hand, she says, a new resting place among other sisters — and under watchful eyes — will provide more assurance in the years to come.
“Our order is diminishing in number. We’re less than 85 persons in the whole country and advancing in age, with the majority in their 80s and 90s,” said Gage. “There won’t be sisters here in 20 years for somebody to call and say, "Oh, there was some mischief in the cemetery last night. You better come and see. Maybe some stones got turned over or spray painted." So, we best prepare for perpetual care for them.”
Sister Mary Nelle and her fellow Sisters of Loretto feel at peace with the decision, and there is one more source of comfort for them: a promise from developers to turn the plot of land into a memorial and place of reflection.
The exhumed bodies of the Sisters of Loretto are expected to be reburied in a ceremony at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge in August.