Denver’s iconic Cathedral Basilica to undergo extensive repairs

Aaron Lambert
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What stands at 210 feet, contains ornate stonework dating back to the early 1900s, and is covered in $985,000 worth of scaffolding in order to be repaired?

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is one of Denver’s dearest landmarks, and it is in desperate need of repair. Father Ron Cattany, Pastor and Rector of the Cathedral, launched a capitol campaign Oct. 22, the feast day of St. John Paul II, to raise $2.4 million to repair the spires and Colfax facade of the Cathedral, which are in dire shape. Construction of the scaffolding began Sept. 19, and the project is well-underway.

A seemingly random event that occurred in March led to the revelation of the state of the building, one that required Father Cattany to act immediately.

“One of the grape clusters fell over the Holy Door,” Father Cattany recounted. “I thank God that when it fell between Sunday Masses, it fell at a time when nobody was there to get hurt. God’s providence always gets us the right message at the right time, and it’s our job to respond.”

Father Cattany contacted a local contractor, Summit Sealants, to conduct the repairs. The original plan was to have workers rappelling off the building and tapping the exterior to identify the pieces of stone that needed to be repaired.

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Father Ron Cattany looks out toward the city of Denver from the roof of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“They started on June 1. On June 10, they stopped,” Father Cattany told Denver Catholic. “What they discovered was that some of the pieces were so loose that they were concerned both about the safety of their workers and the safety of the people.”

As a precaution, Summit Sealants asked Father Cattany to close the west entrance to the Cathedral and put fencing around the west side of the building to prevent passersby from getting too close. Summit Sealants submitted a new design process for the repairs, which featured words that were “shocking” for Father Cattany to hear.

“The direct quote, and that was when my heart stopped, was, ‘The entire building is in desperate need of repair, and it needs a full restoration,’” Father Cattany said. “Originally, it was anticipated that the job was going to be one month, and about $100,000. It’s now going to take six to eight months, the base cost is $1.7 million, and on top of that will be time and materials for anything that needs to be remade.”

The total cost is expected to be $2.4 million for this phase and an additional $1 million for the remainder of the structure for a total of $3.4 million, Father Cattany said.

The scaffolding alone, which the workers will use to access the exterior of the Cathedral and the spires and conduct the repairs, will cost $985,000. The four beams that will support the scaffolding weigh a total of 36,000 pounds.

In an email to Father Cattany from Lawrence Holland, project manager for Summit Sealants, the immense scale of the project was outlined rather succinctly: “I must emphasize again the complexity of designing and building a system that is virtually building a building over a building all the while maintaining the day-to-day operations of the parish.”

As a 104-year-old building, the Cathedral has undergone a number of renovations during its lifespan. Though the damage to the exterior can be attributed to normal deterioration, Father Cattany said that the building was sandblasted in 1963, and due to the harsher, more invasive sandblasting technology of the time, it left pock marks all over the stonework on the outside of the building. Father Cattany said that after 50 years of freezing and thawing, some of the carvings have now cracked, which is part of the trouble.

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Deterioration of the exterior of the Cathedral during its 100-plus year lifespan has led to a capitol campaign aimed at raising $2.4 million to repair the spires and façade of the building. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“There are carvings where you can remove a whole section like a piece of pie,” he said. “It’s shocking to see what’s happened.”

The Cathedral is near and dear to Father Cattany. He grew up attending Mass at the Cathedral with his family, attended Mass there during his 35-year career two blocks away, his grandparents were buried from the Cathedral in 1919 and 1920, and his cousin was baptized in the original baptismal font that remains to this day.

To highlight the significance of the Cathedral Basilica to the city of Denver, Father Cattany turned to the book Pinnacled Glory of the West, in which author and first Cathedral Rector Father Hugh McMenamin recounts the day of Oct. 27, 1912 — the Cathedral’s dedication date.

“What’s fascinating about it is that the concluding lines were, ‘And thus ended Denver’s greatest day,’” Father Cattany said.

The Cathedral is much more than just the mother church of the archdiocese, Father Cattany said. Even today, over 140 visitors enter through the golden doors to revel in its beautiful architecture and pray in its solemn silence. It’s a quiet refuge in the midst of bustling downtown Denver, and Father Cattany wants to ensure it remains open for all to enjoy, even during construction.

“This is a place of prayer, it’s a place of praise, it’s a place of peace, and it’s a place of preservation.” Father Cattany said. “This place is a special gift to everyone. It is a place that we want everyone to visit, to enjoy, to celebrate and to love.”

Cathedral Preservation Fund

One-time Donations can be made:
– By check payable to the Cathedral
– By donation online at denvercathedral.org
– By kiosk donation available in the church or rectory

Three-year pledges may be paid monthly or quarterly:
– Online at denvercathedral.org
– By check
– By direct deposit to the Cathedral’s bank account
– By check regularly mailed from the donor’s bank until pledge is fully paid

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article did not state that Premier Specialty Contractors conducted the repairs to the Cathedral in 1998. The article has been updated to reflect this.

COMING UP: Homeless Outreach at the Cathedral

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Ron Cattany used to be a government employee, living on Capitol Hill since 1985 and spending his lunch breaks at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. He left for seminary in 2009. Now he serves as the pastor of the Cathedral he loves so much. He said that his mission as pastor is simple: He wants to serve all the people of Capitol Hill, no matter their economic stance or background. This includes everyone from young professionals to
the homeless.

“We’re doing a lot about maintaining access for the people of Capitol Hill. The poor and homeless are labels, but they’re people. They’re the people of Capitol Hill, and they’re part of what defines this area,” Father Cattany said. “They are part of the population we serve. I think the big difference I’ve seen in the six years that I’ve been away from the Hill is that life on the streets has changed. It’s become more risky—the drug traffic and the lack of permanent shelters have increased exposure to the natural and human elements—people wear out…and they become victims of crime.”

DENVER, CO - MAY 18: Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila stands with seven newly ordained priests at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on May 18, 2013, in Denver, Colorado. From left, the Rev. Br. Paul Kostka, the Rev. Br. John Ignatius, the Rev. Arturo Chagala, the Rev. José Aníbal Chicas-Guevara, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, the Rev. William Clemence, the Rev. Ronald Wayne Cattany, the Rev. Scott Alexander Bailey. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic Register)

Father Ron Cattany. File Photo.

The Cathedral staff has tried several different approaches to keeping the Cathedral safe. For example, the Cathedral was closed for one day last June.

“It made The Denver Post and the Channel Four News. People want their cathedral open,” Father Cattany said.

Embracing all the people of Capitol Hill is not a mission for the faint of heart. Father Cattany is confident he and his staff and volunteers are up to the challenge, but they still need help.

Luckily, other parishes in the diocese have stepped in to help.

Parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul in Denver help make the 15,600 breakfast sandwiches the Cathedral hands out each year. The homeless can go to Mother of God on N. Logan St. or Holy Ghost on California St. for lunch. St. Thomas More in Centennial, Light of the World and St. Francis Cabrini in Littleton all pledge donations of food or funds that haveallowed the Cathedral to start offering afternoon snacks and help out Christ in the City, as well.

In addition, the Cathedral has an active St. Vincent de Paul society. Although none of the Cathedral’s ministries will give people money directly, they do help individuals pay bills and find furniture for people who have recently found housing.

Father Cattany’s reason for doing so much outreach to the homeless is simple: Because they’re here.

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Capitol Hill contains a mix of young professionals and homeless individuals. The Cathedral staff is working to accommodate both.

“There’s a constant parade of people coming in who need help. We figure out what we can do, what Catholic Charities can do, what the St. Vincent de Paul Society can do, as well as the other service providers in the area—like The Salvation Army,” he said.

Not all the help comes from diocesan organizations. Father Cattany said that every Sunday, the Cathedral has about 1,500 worshippers. Shortly after arriving at the Cathedral, Father Cattany learned that investment income for the Cathedral was down over 50 percent for the last fiscal year. His response was to ask people in the pews to increase their donations.

“The people’s response to give a dollar more a week has been unbelievable—as well as the number of gifts and  bequests. Our expenses are currently $35,000 more than what we take in between offertory and other income. We’re closing that gap,” Father Cattany said.

“That’s why our volunteers are so important,” Father Cattany said. “I’m so grateful for the people who have come forward to help in both service ministries and liturgical ministries since I’ve come here.”

Even if the Cathedral wasn’t actively ministering to the homeless, extra security would still be essential. The Cathedral is located on Colfax Ave. in North Capitol Hill. According to a Denver Police crime map, this area saw 297.5 offenses per square mile in December 2015. According to a separate crime map compiled by The Denver Post, two of the most common types of crime were drug/alcohol related offenses and public disorder.

The cathedral, the mother church of the archdiocese, sits in the middle of this. It also contains the only public restroom between the 16th Street Mall and Downing Street, which Father Cattany said is an important, yet simple factor to the people on the streets.

“Where access has been abused in the past is that people were doing drug deals, having sex, etc. in a sacred space— hat has stopped. We serve the poor and the homeless—we have zero tolerance for drugs and vandalism,” Father Cattany said.

His solution was to hire a security guard to be in the Cathedral during business hours.

“That’s an important message for people to know: When they come here, they’re safe. The changes over the last six months have helped us to keep the church cleaner, and it has cut down on the former illicit activities. Someone watching is worth their weight in gold so that the facilities are open and safe so people can visit,” Father Cattany said.

He said the personnel have also made it easier for the homeless to visit the Cathedral during the day, even if they do simply use the opportunity to rest in safety.

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Capitol Hill residents of diverse backgrounds mingle at the Cathedral’s liturgies. Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

“We will ask them not to snore, but they’re here. They’re safe and they’re quiet, so it’s fine,” he said.

The Cathedral staff works closely with police to help make the space as safe as possible. Father Cattany said that some issues can be resolved by something as simple as a fence.

“We put up a fence around the courtyard at the recommendation of the Denver Police Department. They thought it would help stop drug trafficking, because traffickers will not go into a partially enclosed area because it’s hard to flee, and it has worked,” he said.

Father Cattany said that while people worshipping in the Cathedral must be safe, he also sees that the Cathedral must reach out the homeless.

“There are some in the neighborhood who criticize us for taking care of the poor because they say we’re attracting it. That’s wrong. We’re the Church. They should be welcome,” he said.