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Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part One

March 29, 2017

at Our Lady of Visitation Bazaar, summer, 2016

Our Lady of Visitation, Goat Hill, Unincorporated Adams County, Colorado

It takes a special kind of courage, for people within a religious community to challenge their hierarchy, regardless of the religion, especially those who hold deep religious conviction. It is a kind of intimate struggle, and these can be the most difficult, the most painful. And the consequences – shunning, excommunication, reputation destroying, efforts to press employers to fire dissidents – can be devastating.

Tonight I watched the parishioners of a small Catholic church, located just north of Denver, technically considered a parish, fight to save their church from closure, a key institution for the community the church has long served, Goat Hill, an overwhelmingly working class and poor Chicano community. Nationwide, such churches are often ignored and poorly served, contributing to the archdiocese, but getting little to nothing in return. I watched as parishioner after parishioner, those on the church council, others in the audience, screwed up their courage and confront the Archdiocese of Denver, whose representatives didn’t have the decency to show up to consider their case. They were represented by three empty chairs in front.  Speaking to those empty chairs, issue by issue, carefully, insightfully, the parishioners demolished the Archdiocese’s case for shutting down operations.

The crisis started some five months ago, last November, when representatives of the Archdiocese of Denver showed up unannounced  to tell the parishioners of the Our Lady of Visitation (OLV) that the church would be closed down in the near future. Since then, church membership has mobilized to fight for its life, trying to present its case. Archdiocese hierarchy from top to bottom refused to negotiate with the OLV  church council or concerned parishioners. Repeated attempts to meet with the Archbishop, Samuel J. Aquila, who spent his earlier years as a priest in the Denver area, were met by a wall of silence. Requests for meetings went unanswered or were cancelled at the last minute. Not only has the priest who serves OLV, Father John Paul Leyba, not fought alongside the parishioners, but, to the contrary, he has tried instead to squelch the growing opposition.

The reason the Archdiocese has failed to convince OLV-ers to close shop is straightforward enough: this is a church built by a poor, working class, Chicano community. It is the heart and soul of that community, known as Goat Hill, just north of Denver. OLV is financially sound with a stable constituency of all ages. While there is a priest shortage in the Denver area, one of the pretexts for closure, OLV church council members have proposed a number of concrete ideas to address this particular problem. They, the parishioners, are unwilling to abandon what has been a central focal point of their lives for 3, 4 generations, this at a time when institutions defending this often besieged, neglected community are few and far between. 

The reason the Archdiocese has failed to convince OLV-ers to close shop is straightforward enough: this is a church built by a poor, working class, Chicano community and it is the heart and soul of that community, known as Goat Hill, just north of Denver. They, the parishioners, are not so willing to abandon what has been a central focal point of their lives for 3, 4 generations, this at a time when institutions defending this often besieged, neglected community are few and far between.

The Archdiocese’s decision to close Our Lady of Visitation comes at a time when the Catholic Church in the United States is in crisis, having had to close more than 1000 parishes nationwide since 1995 because of declining membership and lack of financing. Ironically, though, Our Lady of Visitation is not in crisis. Given that its finances are sound and  has an active membership of all age, it is difficult not to suspect that something else is driving this particular closing.

Tonight (Wed, November 29, 2017) the situation came to a head of sorts.

After agreeing to hold a meeting with the OLV tonight (March 29, 2017), the Archdiocese first tried to shift the venue of the meeting from OLV to the larger church to which OLV is administratively connected, Holy Trinity. When, at mass this past Sunday, parishioners of OLV insisted that the March 29 meeting be held at their parish and not elsewhere, the Archdiocese unilaterally cancelled the meeting. Once again, the Archdiocese refused to meet with the parishioners pure and simple.

But with the parish’s future on the line, OLV’s church council decided to hold the meeting all the same – even without the church hierarchy – to present their case as to why the parish should remain open and to explain the situation to parishioners and the broader community. The meeting was also to explain how the parish will continue to fight for its life, its continued existence.

To an audience of about 60-75 people, and three empty chairs at the front – one for the Archbishop, one for Father Leyba and the third for Monsignor Schmitz of the Archdiocese – OLV’s church council made their case for staying open, countering the points raised by the Archdiocese for closing, point by point. Six presentations were given by different current and past Church council members. Each one deconstructed the Archdiocese’s arguments and gave positive, proposals for addressing the different issues at hand. The meeting was video-taped and the tape will be sent to the Archbishop to consider. (It is my understanding, that in some edited form, the tape will be made public.)

Everyone on the church council spoke, as did former church council presidents, a former treasurer, and many people from the audience. Others, long-time and recent members, young and old spoke in defense of their church. “It would break my heart to lose this church,” said Maria Vega, whose father donated to land on which the church stands.” Vega is the daughter of the donor, Benito Garcia.  With her at the microphone was Maria Grubser,  a Council member and the granddaughter of Benito Garcia (and niece of Mary Vega). “All my children were baptized here, I was married here,” another woman added. “The church is a magnet for the community,” added Fred Torres, a retired postman and former church treasurer. Another parishioner spoke of OLV’s property as “holy land where [she] always felt comfortable, always felt safe.” Another comment from the audience, a warning, “Archdiocese, please don’t become corporate America.”

As Sandi Paiz Garcia, a member of the church council put it on a Facebook entry:

Many of you know that our little church is fighting for survival in the face of skyrocketing land values and constrained priest resources. The boxcar church that evolved from a Penitente morada, is being threatened with closure. 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. Although the Archdiocese of Denver did not attend our scheduled meeting tonight, we pray that all clergy and all faiths will see the truth in support of what is right and just.

There were others, many others, present but too choked up to speak. But one who was not too choked up to speak was former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, who with his wife, Cindy Pena, has been a member of OLV parish for thirteen years. Pena explained, quite bluntly, the process – or lack there of – that had led OLV’s church council to stand up to their priest, and to the Archdiocese. He countered the Archdiocese’s excuses for closing OLV down, point by point and then finished his remarks with the following: “We do not want a legal fight with the archdiocese, but if it comes to that….”

The tramway car, in which church services began in 1949. The picture hangs in the church all

Our Lady of Visitation…Unique History, Membership

Our Lady of Visitation (OLV) is a small church with a rich history. That the Denver Archdiocese has decided to close it down is yet another blow to the social fabric of this overwhelmingly working class Chicano neighborhood where it is located, Goat Hill. It’s annual summer bazaars drew people from far and wide. I for one will miss them.

The church sits on a piece of land adjacent to a new light rail line with a new station a few blocks a way, walking distance. It has come to light that an assessment of the church property value done secretly without informing the congregation, suggesting that the land is worth somewhere in the region of $1.4 million. OLV parishioners were told at a recent meeting that their church would close. There is speculation among OLV parishioners, that the property would be sold, that their bank account and all other assets, managed by much larger, Holy Trinity Church, would be confiscated and folded into Holy Trinity’s account. This is not an unrealistic scenario.

The archdiocese’s priority is to concentrate on building new Catholic churches further north and east of the city, in Denver’s burgeoning newly constructed suburbs where the population is more prosperous than the Goat Hill constituents. In tune with the times, an old-established constituency, in or near inner cities or poorer rural areas, is being abandoned, thrown to the winds in the frantic search for wealthier clientele.

The whole operation has the ring of stealing from the poor to augment the wealth of the rich, and that on some levels – the level of the archdiocese – the Catholic Church in Colorado functions more like a business than a spiritual home. One has to wonder if race doesn’t enter into the picture, as the Archdiocese has chosen the one 100% (or nearly) Chicano church to close down sparing others whose financial situations and constituencies are not as stable or healthy? Certainly, in an age of mega Churches, the archdiocese is not alone in this practice, in tune with the current political atmosphere in Washington DC. If Our Lady of Visitation “wasn’t turning a profit”, actually it was hardly in the red. It is not like those churches whose membership has shrunk to naught, to five, ten members. Sunday mass is attended by anywhere from 70 to 100 people, the summer bazaar remains a popular activity.

The whole operation has the ring of stealing from the poor to augment the wealth of the rich, and that on some levels – the level of the archdiocese – the Catholic Church in Colorado functions more like a business than a spiritual home.

It was suggested that the parishioners could attend one of the other larger churches in the neighborhood, Holy Trinity further north on Federal Blvd or Guardian Angel a few miles to the east, where, incidentally, Archbishop Aquila once worked. In truth neither of these larger churches is that far away from OLV; but their make up  and their history, is quite different from OLV both class and ethnic-wise and attending another church does not appeal to many OLV-ers. Fact of the matter is, OLV is more than a little church, it is a community institution that has served this specific community for nearly a century.

Frankly it has been a largely self-sufficient entity, supported by its community for six or seven generations now; the archdiocese has contributed little financially to its activities over the decades. At a time when the community of Goat Hill needs those few institutions within its boundaries to defend its interests – shutting down OLV is a particularly harsh, uncaring aspect to it.

Fact of the matter is, OLV is more than a little church, it is a community institution that has served this specific community for nearly a century. Frankly it has been a largely self-sufficient entity, supported by its community for six or seven generations now; the archdiocese has contributed little to its activities over the decades. At a time when the community of Goat Hill needs those few institutions within its boundaries to defend its interests – shutting down OLV is a particularly harsh, uncaring aspect to it.

The reasons given for shutting down its activities, well let’s just say, that they do not ring true and the machinations that took place to hide the archdiocese’s intentions were, less than dignified, especially As the fate of the OLV became known, first to the church council and then to the broader parishioner base and community constituency, a movement to save the church from closing down sprang up. It broadened quickly.

The Penintente morada where the first church services were held.

It was only after living in northwest Denver for more than twenty years that I first heard of a neighborhood called “Goat Hill” – although it is on both sides of Federal Blvd, just two miles north of our home – a whole world, overwhelmingly working class and Chicano. One of the central public institutions – since scraped for condo development – was Baker Elementary School which sat on the corner of Lowell Boulevard and 64th Ave, named after the mountain man, trapper, Jim Baker, for which the Baker Reservoir was also named. In the same sense it is only after forty years of living in this ever-changing neighborhood that I first heard of a small Catholic church three blocks east of Federal Blvd on 65 Place called “Our Lady of Visitation (OLV).” A friend told us about the church’s summer bazaar; a neighbor’s family, it turns out, belongs to OLV and runs one of the bazaar booths.

And so we went.

Our Lady of Visitation Annual Summer Bazaar

I am not a regular at Catholic churches, but as they are an integral part of the neighborhood (Catholic or otherwise) and represent longstanding local institutions, over the years I have tried to go to some of the concerts, bazaars, whatever, especially in the summer. It was in that spirit that last summer, we (we = Nancy and I) went to OLV’s summer bazaar. A pleasant experience. Good music, the usual variety of game booths, good Mexican food and overall a friendly welcoming place. Our neighbors from across the street were manning a booth.

We intended to stay for a half hour, but remained for two, listening to the bands, watching people dance, talking to people. People were friendly and even though we are, after all, strangers, several engaged us in discussion. A few local dignitaries showed their faces, a former Denver mayor, another local politico joined what appeared to be an overwhelmingly Chicano group of participants. Later a waitress in a local breakfast place related how much she loved those bazaars, went regularly where “her best friend’s mother” was a member of long-standing. That sounded right.

It was as if Nancy and I had discovered “a world” that had always been there, that we had passed hundreds of times if not more, without knowing it was there. Our Lady of Visitation. Goat Hill. The history of the neighborhood and the little church are intertwined, intimately so.

“They” – or most of them – came from a geographical triangle, the base of which are Mora and Taos, New Mexico both sitting on the edge of the New Mexico Rockies; the point of the triangle being the Trinidad region of southern Colorado, these days, gateway to New Mexico along I-25. “They” were Chicanos, many of whom had lived in southern Colorado, northern New Mexico for four hundred years, a mix of Spanish and Native American folk.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, they headed north to the mines west of Pueblo, to the then Rockefeller owned CF&I steel factory in Pueblo, to Denver and to the farm lands north of Denver along the front range where the sugar beet industry was about to explode. They came to find work, and work they did. They found land, generally dry and poorly watered to the north of the Denver. Those who settled in what is still called Goat Hill were overwhelmingly Chicano. They found jobs in the city’s meatpacking factories in the Globeville, Swansea neighborhoods and at the Savory, Savory mushroom factory on north Federal Blvd.

And they moved into an area north of the city still referred to as “Goat Hill.”

To be continued

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Note: For those of you – several have requested by email – wanting more detailed information either about Our Lady of Visitation’s (OLV) struggle to stay open or about the history and social struggles (against racism) of Goat Hill, …for OLV, contact OLV Church OLV Church Community at OLV.church.community@gmail.com…for Goat Hill, contact Goat Hill historian Jerry Roys (jerryroys@yahoo.com)

______________________

Links:

Part Two (of this series) – OLV press conference – April, 27, 2017

Part Three (of this series) – Jerry Roys’ Brief History of Goat Hill

Part Four (of the series) – Demonstrating – or almost – on Archdiocese property

Started Streetcar Mission Near Denver Faces Rail Threat (National Catholic Reporter)

Excommunicated Cleveland Priest, Robert J. Marrone Issues Statement following Church Decree

A Small Church With A Big Heart (La Voz) by James Mejia

The Destruction of St. George Lithuanian Church – Shenandoah, P.A.

Catholic Church Closings in New York Bring Sadness and Anger

Archdiocese (of Chicago) May Close 100 Churches In Next Fifteen Years

South Side (Chicago) Catholic Church To Close Or Merge, Devastating Parishioners

Why has the Catholic Church Closed Over 1,000 Parishes and declined in influence since 1995 in the United States?

Map: Catholic Church Closings in the Past Ten Years (Western Massachusetts)

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Concerning posting comments: What readers need to know. Comments are monitored and need approval from the publisher (me -RJP). Opposing views are welcome frankly. Rarely do I either reject or edit a comment, but I will under certain circumstances, these being: the commentary is deemed too long; it is repetitive of other comments made by the same writer. Rarely will I post anonymous comments. If a reader wants to make a comment she/he should have the courage (I presume that is the right word) to post their name.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas M. Rauch permalink
    March 30, 2017 2:27 am

    Rob,

    Thanks for this wonderful report and article about Our Lady of Visitation Church. I knew nothing about this parish community or its abandonment by the archdiocese. Such stories, while distressing and depressing, only confirm me once more in my decision to cut all ties with the R.C. Church years ago. It’s very late at night—or early in the morning, depending on your perspective—so I’ll send further comments later. Greetings to Nancy.

    Peace.

    Tom >

    • March 30, 2017 7:23 am

      It’s not over yet Tom…

    • March 30, 2017 10:19 am

      Tom and Rob, agree that it is a great report about Visitation — and have forwarded Rob’s piece to many Denver friends asking them to forward it to their friends. But I also asked them to do so as a way of seeking a “win-win” here. If the Archdiocese could find the will to keep Visitation open, it would be a win for them as well as for Visitation folks because it could be a gesture of respect for Hispanic Catholics which could be celebrated also in the larger civic community.

      • March 30, 2017 10:23 am

        Agreed…that is the goal of the folks at Our Lady of Visitation…

  2. Henry Feldman permalink
    March 30, 2017 10:13 am

    Thanks for posting this. I was a VISTA volunteer in that neighborhood 50 years ago. I’d like to keep up with developments.

    • March 30, 2017 10:23 am

      Henry, do you retain any contacts from those days?

      • Henry Feldman permalink
        March 30, 2017 10:30 am

        Not in touch with anyone still there. Just forwarded this to a friend in San Francisco who grew up in Goat Hill and was Headstart teacher there. She may be in contact with some people.

  3. March 30, 2017 10:20 am

    “with a cane” is me — John Kane

  4. Cindy Pena permalink
    March 31, 2017 11:42 am

    Sadly, the Denver Archdiocese and the current Bishop, Samuel Aquila now top my list of shameless, oppressive institutions that disrespect the Latino Community.

    • March 31, 2017 12:04 pm

      Of course, if I am not mistaken, as a first rate catcher but part time philosopher once put it, Yogi Berra…”It ain’t over till it’s over..and even then it’s not over.” And it isn’t over. I know this sounds trite, but try not to be discouraged. There is a wonderful spirit in that little church of yours there is still some time to maneuver.

  5. Carol permalink
    April 4, 2017 2:40 pm

    So sad, I am sorry for the parishioners. But the Catholic Church doesn’t care about its people. Too bad someone can’t argue that this is a right to life issue. That would get their attention. I left the church for many, many great reasons.

    • April 4, 2017 2:45 pm

      What an interesting way of putting it…”a right to life” issue. Thank you for your comment, Carol, although the Archdiocese of Denver might think so, this struggle to keep Our Lady of Visitation alive is far from over. Best wishes, Rob P.

  6. April 8, 2017 3:31 pm

    Please do not give up the fight to keep OLOV open ! Anything we can do to help ,please let us know .

  7. OLV Parishioner permalink
    April 9, 2017 3:49 am

    (publisher’s note: This comment was posted anonymously, which ordinarily I do not approve of, but as it reflects upon the blog posting, and has a point of view, I will post it anyway.It was followed up by another long comment by the same person – at least it came from the same email. I will post this one only slightly shortened as it is too long. I will consider the second post later today. No more comments will be accepted from this person. RJP)

    I have been a registered parishioner for over 50 years at OLV and made my Sacraments there as well. Much untrue gossip is stirring through a one sided story. I understand many want to keep OLV open but there is a right way to do things through our Catholic faith & our trust in God. Upon the announcement of OLV’s closure many were shocked. Some turned to God in prayer & trust, others are grief-stricken and others turned bitter & now have people listening to their side only and in turn have caused a wildfire in a most unsacred way instead of telling truth they’ve left out. My heart aches as well for our little church. It is part of my history, mi vida, mi familia’s gathering place on Sunday’s… a most important part of my upbringing; but there are ways the Catholic church teaches us to deal with hardship of any sort. OLV has struggled for years financially. If it weren’t for our yearly bazaars, after mass bake & breakfast sales, and the weekly offertory; we could never make it financially. That is the truth. When it comes to pleading with parishioners to join our Committee or volunteer, it is always a struggle & the same people continue which is very difficult when running a church with the few who do.

    Sure people volunteer at OLV over our annual bazaar weekend, but where are all the people the rest of the year who are now involved in this reality we’ve been pleading to get help from for years? The many elderly who at one time kept the church alive by going to mass each Sunday, teaching their children to embrace OLV each Sunday & on Holy days, cooking, cleaning & tithing amongst other things; are either unable anymore or are deceased. Many from my baby boomer generation have not followed in their devoted OLV parent’s footsteps by continuing to serve & help OLV by attending mass, or they attend other churches, and/or do not take or encourage their children or families to go, or for reasons only they know. Many whom I’m speaking of are from the Goat Hill area like myself & from OLV families that do not even attend mass.

    We have been blessed with many years at OLV…with God-sent priest and our longtime Deacon Lloyd Quintana. Our current priest has never threatened to close OLV. Father John Paul Leyba comes from a small town in New Mexico with a small church just like our community. He loves OLV as it reminds him of his own town and familia. Anyone who blames our current Pastor for the decision to close OLV is wrong. As we answer to him, he answers to the Archdiocese & they answer to those above them. As complex as others are making it, they are not recognizing our Pastors’ position between his Flock (parishioners) and the Archdiocese. He is in the middle; he did NOT make this decision. His job is difficult…balancing his duties to the church, the sick, the dying, counseling the distressed, the recent death of his father, his recovery from cancer, a lifetime illness he has had to struggle with since birth, back disc pain & being away from his immediate family to name a few.

    So before anyone speaks ill of him try to remember he has superiors he must answer to, he has many sheep (parishioners) to tend, and many responsibilities to the Holy Church. Channel 7 news aired a short segment about OLV. I was disappointed they didn’t do much research prior. I found errors and little truth in what was said. What is disturbing is they left out “truth” & concentrated on those who went in an irrational way leaving out what deserves truth. It is with great disappointment that Mayor Federico Peña and others are threatening to take drastic action when Mr Peña who states he has been a parishioner for a certain number of years is hardly seen as a “parishioner” at OLV himself; as are others involved in the “fight for the church to stay open”. It is very easy to get involved when the going gets tough as in this case…and hard to stay humble, but where were the tough through the past years we expressed OLV would close if we didn’t participate more & as one? In closing, ask yourself in truth…where was I when OLV announced over and over though the years “we need your help to stay open”? Let us put the swords down and keep this peaceful as we now struggle more than ever to keep Our Lady of Visitation open.

  8. Cindy Pena permalink
    April 9, 2017 9:47 am

    It’s unfortunate that a passionate post goes without attribution. Why be anonymous? The truth is that OLV makes money each year. Is it easy? No! Devaluing contributions, even if they are only made at Bazaar time is unfortunate. All contributions to OLV are valuable. I think it is something to celebrate when people come from around the area to support and volunteer at OLV’s bazaar. And yes, keeping a parish alive is hard work. And yes, some of us “only” volunteer during bazaar or “only” write checks at the end of the year. By the way, our status in the church has never been questioned when our donations have been accepted. But we care none-the-less and are owed the opportunity to address the challenges without a decision being made sans parish input. There was a better way to handle this. OLV’s pastor could have met with Council sometime between November and now to demonstrate his compassion for the people of OLV. The Archbishop could have responded to meeting requests, if even to say “no”. We are proud to be supporters. How you classify us matters not. I am proud to fight to keep my father’s church open. He was in tears this week, happy that finally some attention was being paid to the unjust and unfair closure. And I am proud to sign my post. You should feel the same.

  9. Genevieve Katera Martinez permalink
    April 9, 2017 2:11 pm

    Why are you blocking me? Is this a partial blog where others can’t express as I did “the other side”? You people are in denial. You have no clue unless you’ve been a big part of OLV. Everyone has the right to their opinions but it’s a shame bashing is happening at the expense of untruthful statements. The only reason I didnt place my name on my side of the issue is it is a conflict of interest with a family member who is with a media company. But I will post my name for the sake of truth & God as my witness.

  10. Bernadette permalink
    April 9, 2017 7:02 pm

    I have been updating our parish member register as the Archbishop Appeal will go out right after Easter. Going through our records dating back to 1977, there is no one by the name of Genevieve Katera Martinez. If you attended the meeting on March 29, 201, you would have heard the facts and testimonies by many members of OLV. My suggestions you should meet with us and hear the facts before blogging on fact you know nothing about. Father JP may have to answer to his superiors but he also has a duty to us as well and to communicate with the members of OLV!!!

Trackbacks

  1. Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part Two: Remarks of Federico Pena – Former Denver Mayor at a Press Conference at Our Lady of Visitation Parish (actually outside of the Parish), Protesting the Archdiocese of Denver’s Decision to close
  2. Support Our Lady of Visitation in its Protest Against the Archdiocese’s Decision To Close It – Tomorrow – Sunday, April 30 at !2:45 1300 S Steele St, Denver, CO 80210 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  3. Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part Three: Jerry Roys’ Brief History of Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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