ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. – Plans to close a small church in the Goat Hill neighborhood could land the Denver Archdiocese in court.
Parishioners at Our Lady of Visitation learned recently about plans to shutter the church, which has played a central role in the lives of the mostly Latino community in unincorporated Adams County.
The church was organized in 1949 when Benito Garcia donated the first parcel of land to the Archdiocese. Parishioners placed a trolley car on the property and services were held in the trolley until a cinderblock replacement was built in 1954.
There is disagreement about the size of the parish at 2531 W. 65th Place. The Archdiocese says it has 17 registered members and that an additional 68 people routinely attend mass there, but parishioner Cindy Pena told Denver7 there are 300 members of the parish and that 75 attend Mass weekly. She said the parish roster lists 184 families and that Fr. Leyba discouraged updating it, when the church council began the process late last year.
Our Lady of Visitation is considered a “mission,” or satellite, of the much larger Holy Trinity Parish.
Among the parishioners is former Denver Mayor and former U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.
Pena said parishioners had planned to meet with Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a Monsignor in charge of personnel and Fr. John Leyba, the parish priest at Holy Trinity, on March 29.
That meeting was originally scheduled to take place at Our Lady of Visitation, but Pena said Archdiocesan officials tried to move it to Holy Trinity Church.
Parishioners stood firm.
When diocesan leaders failed to show, the folks at Our Lady of Visitation held a meeting anyway. They placed three empty chairs in front, with place markers for the Archbishop, Monsignor and Father Leyba, and proceeded to address concerns that had been voiced about the small parish.
One by one, Pena addressed the concerns about the shortage of priests, the age of the parish, needed infrastructure improvements and finances.
He said there were other priests in Denver willing to help celebrate Mass at Our Lady. He also said the parish was strong and that many young people attend services there.
He also addressed finances.
“We have $250,000 in the bank and $65,000 in capital improvements. There are some churches that have financial problems in this country. This is not one of them. This church makes money,” he said to a huge round of applause.
He said Our Lady's parishioners were ready to move forward with needed repairs to the church and had money in the bank, but couldn't get the Archdiocese to sign off on the work.
Pena said the church won’t be closed without a legal fight.
In a videotape of the meeting, provided to Denver7, Pena said, “If you decide that you’re finally going to close this church, you have one big legal problem.”
He said property deeds show Benito Garcia donated the first parcel of land for the church and that he intended that the Archdiocese hold it in trust “on behalf of our Lady of Visitation.”
“If the Archdiocese decides to ultimately close the church,” Pena said, “the family demands, not asks, demands that you follow the law of the trust, and you return the land and the building and everything to the parishioners and the parish.”
When asked if the land will be returned to the families, Karna Swanson, the Archdiocese executive director of communications told Denver7, “This is an issue for the lawyers.”
Swanson said Holy Trinity’s pastor decided to close Our Lady of Visitation because he has his hands full ministering to parishioners at the larger parish.
“At the end of the day, this was a decision by the pastor who was looking at the needs of this community as well as the needs of the larger parish,” she said, “and weighing those resources, he thought at the end of the day, it’s better to stop offering mass once a week.”
Swanson said the pastor ministers to 3,000 parishioners at Holy Trinity, which she said is two miles away.
When told that several other priests have offered to help celebrate Mass at Our Lady, Swanson replied, “If there is a retired pastor who wants to pitch in, maybe he should pitch in at Holy Trinity.”
Swanson said this wasn’t a decision based on money, it was about looking at the needs of the parish.
When asked if Holy Trinity’s pastor could decide to sell the Our Lady property, which is increasing in value because it is near a new light rail line that will open soon, Swanson said, “That will be a wider decision and a larger one that will require the consultation of many other people.”
She said the Archbishop did not attend the planned meeting at Our Lady of Visitation because he had received a letter threatening legal action.
“That letter changed the entire dynamics of the meeting,” she said. “They were the ones that made the first move.”