After over 100 years, change is coming to a small section of the old Loretto Heights property in southwest Denver. Purchased by a developer, the property is already abuzz with activity. But in a small corner of the property, a quiet, earnest project is underway: exhuming the bodies of the Sisters of Loretto who have been buried in the community cemetery for decades. The exhumation, a rare occurrence, is part of an effort to secure and honor the women buried there and ensure a worthy final resting place at Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, where they will be joining numerous other Sisters of Loretto who are buried there.
Founded in 1812, the Sisters of Loretto have worked tirelessly over the centuries to promote peace and justice. Here in Denver, that work was primarily in education. In 1888, the Sisters made plans to open a girls boarding school on the Loretto Heights property. In 1912, in conjunction with the Sisters’ centennial, a cemetery was dedicated on the property.
“Mother Pancratia had this plot dedicated as a cemetery in 1912,” Sister Mary Nelle Gage told the Denver Catholic, “primarily because we had 10 sisters that were buried in Mount Calvary, the Catholic section of the City’s cemetery which is where the Botanical Gardens and Cheeseman Park are now. That closed because the City was advancing east so everyone had to be moved. Since 1912, we started with 10 and then as sisters died, they came here. And then in 1969, the City asked that there be no more burials here. Deaths after that point, those sisters were buried up at Mt. Olivet. We have 22 there and that’s where Bishop Machebeuf is buried,” Sr. Gage shared, acknowledging the first bishop of Denver who brought the Sisters of Loretto to the area from Santa Fe.
In the century after the school’s opening, it would become a high school, and then a college. Following the Sisters’ closing of the college in 1988, the property became home to Teikyo Loretto Heights University, a school for Japanese students that would later become Colorado Heights University. That university closed in 2017, and the property was eventually sold to private developers.
Given this rich history of the property and the cemetery, the decision to exhume and move the sisters’ bodies was a difficult one, one that the Sisters of Loretto did not take lightly. All of these changes over the last century led the Sisters to consider how best to care for their ancestors in faith and service. The decision was ultimately made that moving the sisters buried at Loretto Heights to Mt. Olivet in order to be with their other sisters buried there made more sense for providing long-term care and upkeep.
“I feel like this is an extension of our Precious Lives program,” said Gary Schaaf, Executive Director of Mortuary and Cemeteries at Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services, “in that we’re acknowledging the beauty of these ladies’ lives, even though many of them died more than 100 years ago. This tremendous effort from the team that’s doing this evidences that belief. This is the right thing, even though it’s a difficult decision, not taken lightly, but in terms of our ultimate desire to protect them in a way that honors their tremendous service. As the world goes in different places, we can protect them in a sacred space reserved for this purpose forever by the Archdiocese of Denver.”
“I had thought the witness value of people whose belief propelled them to serve is something that humanity needs to be aware of,” Sister Gage shared. “And they will be that witness value, of course, in Mt. Olivet. But the coffins, the caskets, remain and their stone will remain here,” Sister Gage said, explaining that the wooden caskets and the headstones would remain, buried at the site, where the developer has said he will erect a memorial garden in the Sisters’ honor. “So there is a presence of those sisters still in this sacred ground. And the developer has indicated that indeed this is sacred ground and they will make a memorial garden.”
The exhumation process is being led by a team of professors and students from various local universities. Dr. Michala Stock, an anthropology professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, is among those professionals overseeing the reverential effort.
“You know, ideally, people like once they bury their loved ones for them to stay buried,” Dr. Stock shared. “That’s maybe not a universal human aspect, but certainly something the folks here would have enjoyed. However, circumstances sometimes call for disinterment whether that’s in a medical, legal, or forensic context or for cultural management and preservation.”
When circumstances do necessitate disinterment, a proper perspective is needed to honor the dead whose final resting place is being disturbed. “I think really recognizing and honing in on just because someone is dead doesn’t erase their personhood,” Dr. Stock said. “You know, they have loved ones — maybe still living, maybe not — they had full lives, they were important people… Everybody is an important person. And that just because some of that animus or corporeal essence is gone doesn’t diminish that. It’s important to remind us that this is a person, I’m working with a person. It’s a descendent, an individual, a family member. Just always keeping that in the forefront of our minds for that reverence and respect.”
With this perspective, Dr. Stock and her team is hard at work to ensure that the Sisters of Loretto buried in the Loretto Heights cemetery are given the honor they deserve after decades of service in the community. In the coming months, caskets will be built for these sisters and they will be reinterred at Mt. Olivet, in the section that their sisters have occupied since 1969.