Homeless Outreach at the Cathedral

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.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”