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Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part Four: Demonstrating on Archdiocese. Property..The March That Almost, But Didn’t, Happen

May 6, 2017

Sole Garcia addressing the April 30, 2017 rally in front of the Denver Archdiocese

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(The experience of excommunicated Cleveland priest, Father Robert Marrone, at St. Peter’s Church, parallels the forced closing of Our Lady of Visitation in Colorado.)

“We didn’t leave the church; We were shoved outside because we wanted to stay together.” As a March 5, 2012 article in the National Catholic Reporter noted: “This separation was not about any hot-button issue, as has been the case elsewhere. It wasn’t about ordination of women or married men or anger at what a new pastor was doing. It was about wanting to remain in the community.”

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Introduction

It – a demonstration on Denver Archdiocese property – had been planned, announced for some time, giving the Archbishop something to think about.

After what was mandated by the Denver Archdiocese to be the last mass of Our Lady of Visitation Parish  (OLV), in Southwest Adams County, Colorado, the parishioners would go to the spacious grounds of the Archdiocese to protest the decision and ask for a reversal – that their parish should remain open and continue as it had in the past. The parish council and the parishioners as a whole had already  convincingly countered all the arguments the Archdiocese had given for closing OLV. Their repeated requests for a meeting with the Archbishop, the Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, had met with a five month wall of silence.

Armed with 1200 signatures of parishioners and Goat Hill supporters calling on the archbishop to reverse his decision, the entire congregation had mobilized to have ” a prayer-vigil-demonstration at the archbishop’s residential complex down at South Steele St. in southeast Denver. It was a well-organized, politically carefully targeted action.The press was notified, buses and vans loaded up after the “last mass” and a group of about fifty supporters was waiting at the Archdiocese’s entrance.

At the last minute things changed.

The demonstration in front of Archbishop Aquila’s residence, on the Archdiocese property, morphed into a short rally at the entrance of the Archdiocese at the end of which the 1200 signatures parish members had collected opposing the parish closing were given to an Archdiocese representative, a security guard. A last-minute deal had been struck, or so the participants were led to believe. In exchange for not demonstrating on the Archdiocese’ property, the Archbishop agreed to what he had for five months avoided: meeting with a small delegation of OLV’s church council to hear their grievances, their reasons for keeping the parish alive and functioning as it had been for the past seventy years – even longer if the time the community met in the Penitente morada adjacent to the parish property. 

This decision not to demonstrate as planned caused confusion and some anger among the OLV parishioners. Much time, political and emotional energy had gone into the decision to take such a radical step in the first place. In the end, the rally option was a less confrontational choice. The logic for not demonstrating was based upon the idea that it is only through more quiet, “respectful” negotiations that the parish’s cause could be won. This is the chosen path. It was disconcerting that it was the Archdiocese representatives who decided which members of the OLV church council it would meet with, and not the Church council itself. 

We will see if it is successful in the end. What amounts to little more than a case of religious gentrification continues – sacrificing a working class Chicano parish and parishioner base, selling off its assets (sooner or later) to concentrate on growth in Denver’s more prosperous suburbs.

These are times of crisis and “doing business the old way” – including Church business is not enough, or so the reasoning of some go. The more radical approach is that only by shaking things up, by embarrassing if not shaming, the Archdiocese, could the OLV parishioners stand a chance of winning their goals. The usual, softer “back room” negotiations would not work.  Not only might that have sped up the process of actually saving the parish from closing, but a “people’s victory” over a powerful and generally known-to-be corrupt bureaucracy probably would have resonated far beyond the parish and Goat Hill, beyond Catholic circles to the broader Chicano population of the Southwest.

It still could happen; but an opportunity was missed and they don’t come that often more than once.

But these are times of crisis and “doing business the old way” – including Church business is not enough, or so the reasoning of some go. The more radical approach is that only by shaking things up, by embarrassing if not shaming, the Archdiocese could the OLV parishioners stand a chance of winning their goals and that the usual, softer “back room” negotiations would not work. Not only might that have sped up the process of actually saving the parish from closing, but a “people’s victory” over a powerful and generally known-to-be corrupt bureaucracy probably would have resonated far beyond the parish and Goat Hill, beyond Catholic circles to the broader Chicano population of the Southwest. It still could happen; but an opportunity was missed and they don’t come that often more than once.

Over the course of this controversy it became obvious that, other than the fact that the reasons given for closing down the parish could all be shown to be from weak to bogus, that there were two larger issues looming over it all that the Archdiocese very much wanted to avoid.

  1. Given that more than 50% of Catholics in Colorado are Chicano or other Latino, the Archdiocese was worried that questions of racial discrimination would be raised. Why of all the churches in the Archdiocese was, Our Lady of Visitation, with its nearly 100% Chicano constituency singled out?  Add to this the long history of discrimination, commonly called racism, against Latino churches in Colorado of which, the closing of OLV could be cited as yet the most recent example
  2. The Archdiocese was also very worried of a demonstration on their property that would focus on the Archbishop’s sumptuous residence, already a subject of criticism in both the local and national media. Nationally, a CNN special “The Lavish Homes of American Archbishops” featured Archbishop Aquila’s less-than-modest-not-so-little abode. To quote from that article: “The Archdiocese of Denver is building a $6.5 million, 13,500-square-foot center that will include meeting space, a kitchen, a library, a chapel and an apartment for Archbishop Samuel Aquila. The residence portion, which includes living space for several other priests, will cost about $1.3 million, according to the archdiocese.” Embarrassed, Aquila was pressured to defend his extravagance in an article in the Denver Post.  Defend it as he may, the contrast between the Archbishop’s commitment to be the “servant of the people” with his lavish living quarters grated when OLV parishioners were shown photos of the residence.

The proposed picket in front of the Archbishop’s residence, with press present, would have shown light on both of these “concerns” creating, as their representative admitted to a meeting of OLV representatives, “a scandal.” But it was precisely such “a scandal” that might have pressed the Archdiocese to negotiate more seriously with the parish representatives, to reverse what is, a best, a poorly conceived decision based on faulty information. Instead the process will be drawn out in more secretive negotiations, of a kind with which he Catholic Church hierarchy has great familiarity.

Our Lady of Visitation, St Frances Xavier Cabrini Church of  Scituate, Massachusetts and St. Peter’s Church in Cleveland The awe-inspiring 19th century Holy Trinity German Church and its rectory in Boston’s South End are expected to be transformed into contemporary luxury condos by spring 2017 (which is right about now)

There have been both suggestions and hints that the Denver Archdiocese has been planning to close Our Lady of Visitation Parish for several years now and to merge is property/financial assets into the larger Holy Trinity Church up on Federal Blvd and 76 Ave near the Denver-Boulder Expressway, that long before it was formally announced, that it was “a done deal” with the only uncomfortable little complication being how to package the fact that the Archdiocese had royally screwed the little parish.

What are some of those hints?

  • The refusal to permit OLV to do reparations on its roof, despite the fact that a $50,000 fund had been raised to do the repairs
  • The fact that a secret assessment of the property – without the knowledge of the parish council – was done by the archdiocese more than a year ago determining that the property’s value is somewhere between $1.5 -2 million.
  • The fact that a new light-rail line and station is being completed close to the parish properties
  • The refusal of the authorities at Holy Trinity Church – which oversees OLV – to permit OLV to update its membership lists resulting in the false impression that membership had slid to naught, as well as other bureaucratic administrative tricks to make the parish look bad.
  • The fact that among the members of Holy Trinity Church it was well-known, that Our Lady of Visitation would close with the larger church gobbling up its resources and members.
  • The entire secrecy with which all this was carried out, the refusal to even consult with the OLV parish council other than to inform them that their fate was sealed raised suspicions. There were other indications as well.

In the end, when the plan had been hatched, and approved by the Archdiocese – and certainly after having reviewed the possible legal challenges that might occur – a representative of the Archdiocese, Reverend Msgr. Bernard Schmitz met with the OLV Parish Council to essentially give them the news: the parish would close sometime after Easter, in 2017. He gave a number of reasons – all of which have been discredited by OLV parish council members and parishioners. They were:

  • That the registered membership had dwindled to 17; no – it was closer to 300 but Holy Trinity administrators refused to let OLV input the numbers
  • That the parish was in financial troubles. This is nonsense – it has some $250,000 in the bank plus an escrow account for repairs of $50,000. True their summer bazaar had not made as much money as times past…but it did clear $17,000 this past summer
  • That there is a priest shortage and that the priests administering mass at OLV were overcharged with other responsibilities. Considering that the said priest, one Father Leyba, did only one mass a week and often sent a substitute and that the OLV parish came up with all kinds of options to deal with this issue, this, too was something of a weak pretext.

There was one point that was made at this November meeting which rings true – the fact that the Archdiocese is anxious to expand into Denver’s ever-growing and more prosperous northern and eastern suburbs, where the constituents are more prosperous and where the church itself could reap more financial benefit. To accomplish such a goal, a number of inner-city parishes – Our Lady of Guadelupe, St. Patricks, St. Dominic’s to name just a few in northwest Denver – southwest Adams County – have been threatened with closing. There were earlier failed attempts to close Our Lady of Guadelupe. The others, these past years, have been very nervous that they too would be targeted. This is part and parcel of a national policy known as “clustering” – to eliminate smaller churches and force the membership to join larger, more prosperous congregations.

One has to wonder actually, if Our Lady of Visitation was targeted, not because it lacked finances, but because it had resources that the Archdiocese could expropriate for itself, for whatever. Certainly there are Catholic churches, parishes and missions that have lost their membership, and are in such financial difficulty that closing them is a reasonable option. However, Our Lady of Visitation is not one of them. Instead, other factors are at play – lack of support for churches in poorer neighborhoods (even if they are self-sufficient), and in the end, what is little more than “a business model” for church growth, an administrative-bureaucratic approach, that emphasizes profit over people and becomes little more that stealing from the poor to subsidize the rich, an approach fashionable these days both in religious and secular circles.

In any case, when one looks nationally, a pattern that Our Lady of Visitation is caught up in becomes crystal clear. Throughout the country the Catholic Church has been closing churches and parishes – or trying to – selling the land and structures to private businesses and pocketing the money to pay expenses for different things, in many places (although not so much in Colorado to my knowledge) it is to pay for sexual abuse suits that have been filed against out-of-control priests.

Let’s look at several of these cases. Our Lady of Visitation is not alone in fighting back against closure. The patterns – the pretexts and what appear to be the real reasons – while not identical, are surprisingly similar. An example of what might be in store for Our Lady of Visitation and St Frances Xavier Cabrini Church comes from Boston itself (see accompanying photo) where Boston’s Holy Trinity Boston Church, first built in 1868 is being transformed into condos with rentals ranging from about $3,000 to $7,000 per month. Although the Denver Archdiocese has been forced to back away from plans to sell the OLV property, that could easily change once the parishioners are purged and scattered.

St Frances Xavier Cabrini Church is located in Scituate, Massachusetts south of Boston. Its agony began in 2004. Here is a quote from the respected British newspaper, The Independent:

It was bad enough that the Archdiocese of Boston had included their church, with its full pews and healthy finances, among the 70 (!!!) it was eliminating in the name of streamlining. Worse was how, when the moment came, they broke a promise to let the parishioners stay put for just a few extra days. To say goodbye.

“They [the Archdiocese] came in under the cover of darkness, they ransacked the place and then they changed the locks,” parishioner Jon Rogers recalled, pointing to outlines on the brick walls of the main sanctuary where statues used to watch over the congregation. “The Blessed Mother was there, and Joseph over here, both gone.”

“Full pews and healthy finances” should ring a bell with OLV parishioners. The article, written nearly two yearas ago, in 2015, goes on to state that since 2004 that the parishioners had already engaged in what was an eleven year permanent sit-in at their church to prevent it from being sold out from under them.

The article goes on:

It is act of defiance without parallel. Church closures have become a fact of life for Catholics across the United States – the Archdiocese of New York is merging or closing a third of its parishes – and protests and occupations are commonplace. But none has matched the battle of St Frances of Scituate, where a confessional is now a bedroom for the night shift and this year’s Easter service attracted 800 worshipers.

What was the reason for closing down the church? “Fueled by a shared sense of betrayal and fury – and a belief that the Archdiocese wants to sell the prime 30-acre church property, a stone’s throw from Cape Cod Bay, to help pay for sexual abuse claims filed against it – the squatters’ rebellion may be running out of legal leeway, however. Appeals to a Vatican court to overturn the closure order have so far failed, and now the Archdiocese has sued in court for their eviction.

I do not know how this case finally ended, but using more or less the same pretexts for closing OLV (poor finances and low membership) the Archdiocese tried to close a well-functioning, well attended, well-financed small town Catholic church. An eleven year permanent sit-in – those folks were determined!

The case of the Community of St. Peters, Cleveland, Ohio is just as curious. Again a certain pattern, resembling that of OLV appears. It is another “historic church” was closed in 2009. Like OLV, St. Peters’ Church was the oldest continuously functioning Catholic church in Cleveland, founded in 1853. At the time that the Archbishop of Cleveland determined it should be closed, it “was solvent, active, growing and had recently completed renovations. At the height of the parish’s growth, at its closing it had 300 families — more than 60 people — as members. It sponsored celebrated adult education and arts programs, bringing in outside authors and performers.”  None of this mattered to Archbishop Lennon who closed it based on the “clustering” principle – that there were too many churches too close together. Like OLV, St. Peters’ parishioners were told to register with other nearby churches.

The case of the Community of St. Peters, Cleveland, Ohio is just as curious. Again a certain pattern, resembling that of OLV appears. It is another “historic church” was closed in 2009. Like OLV, St. Peters’ Church was the oldest continuously functioning Catholic church in Cleveland, founded in 1853. At the time that the Archbishop of Cleveland determined it should be closed, it “was solvent, active, growing and had recently completed renovations. At the height of the parish’s growth, at its closing it had 300 families — more than 60 people — as members. It sponsored celebrated adult education and arts programs, bringing in outside authors and performers.”  None of this mattered to Archbishop Lennon who closed it based on the “clustering” principle – that there were too many churches too close together. Like OLV, St. Peters’ parishioners were told to register with other nearby churches.

But here is where the similarities ended.

The community that made up St. Peters refused to disband (for the most part). They stayed together and formed a non-profit, the Community of St. Peters that continues with its very unauthorized but Catholic-like religious and cultural activities in their new facility. How different the responses of the priests in the two cases. OLV’s Father Leyba has gone along with the Archdiocese’s decision to close the parish and seems to have been involved in the planning and execution of the project from the outset. He continues to threaten parishioners who want to hold any Catholic religious activities at the parish. As far as the Denver Archdiocese is concerned, Our Lady of Visitation, as an active Catholic parish, ceased to exist on May 1, 2017.

Father Robert Jay Marrone of St. Peters’ Church took a different path. He went with his congregation to the newly formed community and there, against the rules of the Cleveland Archdiocese, he said mass. For that he was excommunicated, a threat that hangs over those priests in Colorado who have said they are willing to say mass for OLV parishioners.

Marrone’s comments on his excommunication are of interest.

“We didn’t leave the church; We were shoved outside because we wanted to stay together.” As a March 5, 2012 article in the National Catholic Reporter noted: “This separation was not about any hot-button issue, as has been the case elsewhere. It wasn’t about ordination of women or married men or anger at what a new pastor was doing. It was about wanting to remain in the community.”

In Cleveland, the very Catholic-like community of St. Peter’s Church, held together; eight years after the closing of their church, they remain a community. Can the Our Lady of Visitation community do likewise?

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Links:

Part One: Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish

Part Two: Remarks of Federico Pena, Former Denver May at Press Conference at Our Lady of Visitation Parish (actually outside the Parish)

Part Three: Jerry Roys’ Brief History of Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane potter permalink
    May 7, 2017 2:16 pm

    Truly the whole situation is a scandal. It was poorly handled by the archdiocese from the beginning.
    The hierarchy of the archdiocese have lost touch with the average parishioner. To be a good shepherd, one needs to smell like the sheep. One can’t do that by living in a multimillion fortress.
    If the archdiocese was in touch with what is going on in Denver they would be supporting inner city parishes. It is inner city Denver that is seeing population growth not the suburbs.
    The parishioners of OLV remain in my thoughts and prayers.

  2. John Kane permalink
    May 8, 2017 11:24 am

    Thanks, Rob, for your research and detail. Let’s hope. John

  3. Marie Giedratiis-Edgar permalink
    May 10, 2017 9:17 am

    Yes, let’s hope and pray for a positive outcome for the OLV community. It will be, in my view, an outcome that affects all of us who are interested in fairness, justice and the survival of healthy community life.

Trackbacks

  1. Goat Hill and Our Lady of Visitation Parish: Part One | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  2. 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
  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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