Started in a street car, mission church near Denver faces rail threat

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by Peter Feuerherd

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Supporters of a Denver area mission threatened with closure liken their plight to the plot of an old Western.

The railroad — or in this case a regional light rail line — is coming through the Goat Hill neighborhood, and their church's property value is expected to skyrocket. So Our Lady of Visitation Mission outside Denver will be sacrificed, they say.

The once-a-week Mass at Our Lady of Visitation will end in May, as parishioners of the historically Mexican-American church have been asked to attend the nearby Holy Trinity Church, less than two miles away.

"Our community is rallying and hoping to get our voice heard," Sandra Garcia, a parish leader, told NCR. She said archdiocesan officials have declined to speak to the members of the mission who want to keep their little church alive.

Established in 1949, the roots of the mission go back to the Los Hermanos Penitentes, a lay society that accompanied Mexican-American migrants from New Mexico and southern Colorado to post-World War II farms and factories in the Denver region. Many of the newcomers worked at a local mushroom processing plant. The mission has never had a resident pastor, with its priests sent there from the larger Holy Trinity parish, which has 3,000 parishioners, according to the Denver Archdiocese. Our Lady of Visitation was formally joined with Holy Trinity in 1958.

The mission church is composed of two street cars converted into a small chapel (when the Denver street car company went out of business as buses and cars took over transportation after World War II, a creative pastor saw an opportunity for a deal). The archdiocese says there are now 90 registered families on the mission rolls, with only 17 of those actually living in the area. Supporters of the mission claim 250 families with a typical Sunday Mass attendance of about 100 worshipers.

The Mass is in English, but many of the hymns are in Spanish. By contrast, Holy Trinity offers eight weekend liturgies, including two in Spanish.

"We were called a mission," said Garcia, who said that the archdiocese has downgraded its impact. "We are now a ministry, kind of like bowling with Jesus on Tuesday nights."

Our Lady of Visitation sits about a half mile from a proposed light rail commuter station to service downtown Denver. As a result, property prices in the area have skyrocketed.

The mission, say supporters, has ample financial resources, with $250,000 in the bank.

David Uebbing, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Denver, emphasized that the mission is not closing, only that weekend Mass will no longer be celebrated there. Parishioners are being asked to join Holy Trinity. That parish will decide the fate of the Our Lady of Visitation mission in consultation with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, he said.

Supporters of the mission are sponsoring a press conference at the mission on April 27 during which former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, a parishioner, will speak.

The final Mass at Our Lady of Visitation is scheduled for Sunday, April 30, at 10:45 a.m. After the Mass, a caravan of parishioners and their supporters will travel to Aquila's residence in Denver to protest the end of Mass at the mission with a prayer vigil.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]

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