“This is an extraordinary parish,” noted Rev. Robert J. Greenslade, the pastor who guided Holy Family through its 1989 centennial.
We are fortunately old-fashioned in having preschool through high school Catholic education. Yet, we are a national model, thanks to Holy Family Plaza, of the intergenerational parish of the future. By serving the needs of all ages, we enrich the lives of young and old through parish relationships that bridge the generation gap.
“Holy Family parish reeks of history,” according to Father Greenslade. It began in 1888 when Sacred Heart (now Regis) College moved to West 50th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. The following year, Bishop Machebeuf asked the Jesuits at the college to tend to Catholics living between Olivet [Cemetery] Road (now Ward Road) on the west, Meade Street on the east, West 38th Avenue on the south, and Arvada on the north.
In 1891, Bishop Matz officially christened the parish Holy Family. It served the Berkeley neighborhood, which started out in the 1880s as an incorporated farm town but was annexed to Denver in 1902. Now, the neighborhood and parish, bounded by Federal and Sheridan boulevards between West 38th and 52nd avenues, form the northwest corner of the City and County of Denver.
From 1889 to 1905, members of the new parish attended Mass at Regis College Chapel. Lawrence Fede, SJ, who became pastor in 1901, thought that the growing parish needed its own church. Edward L. Johnson donated lots at the southeast corner of West 44th Avenue and Utica Street for a nominal $10 consideration. A small, pressed brick hall, designed to serve as both church and school, was completed for $5,849.34 and blessed by Bishop Matz on June 3, 1905.
Father Fede, a native of Naples who was the first prefect of discipline and a professor of Spanish at Regis College, reported in 1916 that his congregation consisted of 115 “English” families, forty Italian families, five German ones, and one French family, of whom all but seven had made their Easter duty. Holy Family acquired more lots and built a rectory for Father Fede before this gentle, scholarly pastor retired in 1918. Subsequently, Bishop Tihen made Holy Family a diocesan parish.
Cornelius F. O’Farrell, pastor from 1919 until he died in a 1923 automobile crash, set about building a school on the south side of the church. Parish volunteers began excavating on February 14, 1920, and the $60,000 grade school was opened that September by five Sisters of Loretto. The basement auditorium of this fast growing school was partitioned in 1922 to create a ninth-grade classroom. Thirty students enrolled at once, inaugurating what has become Holy Family High School.
The next pastor, Mark W. Lappen, purchased the house south of the school for $4,950 and converted it into a convent in 1923. To pay for the convent and other parish projects, Holy Family began staging the first of many annual galas at Elitch Gardens. This famous amusement park, located four blocks from Holy Family at West 38th and Tennyson, has continued to donate its grounds to the parish yearly, thanks to the generosity of owners Mr. and Mrs. T.J. Mulvihill and, later, their son-in-law, Arnold Guertler. The first Elitch’s social of 1923 helped Holy Family School to establish a library and a chemistry laboratory in the high school, where the first twelve graduates received diplomas in 1926. During the off-season, Holy Family dramatists were allowed to stage their productions in Elitch’s Summer Stock Theater.
By 1929, Holy Family grade and high schools overflowed with almost 400 students. The next year, the parish bought John P. O’Connor’s corner grocery at 4379 Tennyson for $5,000 and converted it to first- and second-grade classrooms. Still, Holy Family School bulged with students, including ninety-four first graders. In the fall of 1931, four rooms were added to the rear of the school at a cost of $6,500. The parish’s heavy investment in education was rewarded in 1933, when the high school was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
Jobs, as well as academic credentials, became a focus of Holy Family High School during the Great Depression, when vocational training was begun in 1933. To support the parish and its ambitious education program, Holy Family held bazaars and also smokers for menfolk, where Holy Family boxers–the terrors of Denver’s Parochial League Boxing Tournament–provided the entertainment. Leo M. Flynn succeeded Father Lappen as pastor in 1937. A 1941 addition to the convent was followed by construction of more classrooms, with parish volunteers providing much of the labor. Father Flynn, who died shortly after becoming Monsignor Flynn in 1951, was followed by Forrest Allen.
Monsignor Allen purchased the house south of the convent and incorporated it in an addition for the sisters. A bungalow behind the convent on Tennyson Street was purchased and converted to the home economics department, where students could practice the domestic sciences. Additional classrooms were built on top of and behind the original church/school hall, whose entry was remodeled. As supports for the upper story classrooms blocked views of the altar, pew rent was lowered for those behind the columns, though some found them a welcome screen for catching a few extra winks on Sunday mornings.
After decades of adding classrooms here and there, Holy Family constructed a modern high school, cafeteria, and gym in 1958. Lawrence St. Peter, pastor from 1972 to 1983, oversaw complete remodeling of the parish plant and publication of the Holy Family Diamond Jubilee. This substantial, generously illustrated parish history captures many memories of old timers, which ranged from seeing Grace Kelly at Mass when she was starring at Elitch Theater to having Elvis Presley sing in the church at a funeral Mass for a Denver policeman. Among celebrities graduating from Holy Family High School are Walter “Dusty” Saunders, ace media columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Regis College professor and state legislator, Dennis Gallagher. Holy Family’s top priority, now as then, has been education. This explains why a large parish (1,300 families by the late 1980s) has never moved out of its original, homely church. Indeed, the “temporary” 1905 building is still the parish church, with multiple additions. Instead of spending a million dollars to build a new church, Father St. Peter explained in a February 1985 article in Today’s Parish magazine, “after much discussion and consultation, the parish council and staff decided to invest in a total renovation of the existing facility.” In cooperation with the City of Denver, Utica Street was closed off on the south side of West 44th Avenue and a cul-de-sac park created to provide “a safe and pleasant place for the school children to play and for people to mingle after Mass.”
As in the beginning, its schools are the pride of the parish. Over 150 sisters have taught there since 1920 and a few of them still do, though most of the sisters residing in the large convent pursue other ministries. An active Holy Family Booster Club supports the “Tigers.” Motorcycle riding Richard Haber, the young principal, explained in 1988 that Holy Family High School has three diploma programs. The most popular is college prep, as 80 percent of the students go on to college. For high achievers there is an honors program, while a general diploma program provides vocational education in cooperation with Denver and Jefferson counties public schools.
“We promote Christian values,” stated Sister Fran Maher, CSJ, associate principal, in a March 2, 1988, Denver Catholic Register supplement featuring Holy Family High School. The school offers daily Mass, religion classes, overnight student retreats, community Halloween and Christmas parties, and a Mission Club, which emphasizes contact with society’s down and out. A model Holy Family program sends high schoolers out to nursing homes to help feed, entertain, and interview elders. Jim Hunt, a Holy Family senior, explained the idea in the Rocky Mountain News of December 12, 1986: “It’s hard to be old today. We’re trying to make these senior citizens happy. In these days when things move so fast, technology and stuff, people forget about the older people.”
The elderly have also been physically adopted by the parish, which in 1981 welcomed a $4.5-million, five-story, senior high-rise constructed at 4300 Vrain Street. Sister Marie de Lourdes Falk, SCL, administrator of the Holy Family Plaza residence, reported in a 1987 interview that Holy Family preschool, elementary, and high-school students have all welcomed senior citizens to the parish. Our seniors, she added, benefit from intergenerational activities, such as dancing, story telling, oral history projects, bridge lessons, and the high school’s Understanding the Elderly class. The seventy-nine units filled up quickly and there is now a waiting list of over 100.
Father St. Peter, the pastor who worked for Holy Family Plaza despite some neighborhood opposition, also transformed the parish into what has been rechristened Holy Family Center. Exemplifying the spirit of the parish, this family center demonstrates how a parish can accomodate everyone from the cradle to the grave.