Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part One
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….”
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.
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
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.firstname.lastname@example.org…for Goat Hill, contact Goat Hill historian Jerry Roys (email@example.com)
Part Two (of this series)– OLV press conference – April, 27, 2017
Started Streetcar Mission Near Denver Faces Rail Threat (National Catholic Reporter)
A Small Church With A Big Heart (La Voz) by James Mejia
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