‘Church on the hill’ breaks ground on new sanctuary

For St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins, new dedicated worship space will be a ‘long-awaited promise’

Moira Cullings

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (SEAS) in Fort Collins is known around town as the ‘Church on the hill.’

“It’s the easiest way to explain where to find us,” said Vanessa Schibler, who has been a parishioner at SEAS since she was eight years old.

But the church that can be seen for miles has always lacked something special — a building dedicated solely as a church sanctuary and not a multi-purpose room.

Around 30 years ago when the parish was founded, the plan was to utilize a multi-purpose building and, once the parish was established, build a separate sanctuary next to it. Now, the wait is finally over.

“[Parishioners] see this as their long-awaited promise,” said Father Joseph Toledo, pastor of St. Elizabeth’s.

SEAS broke ground on Sept. 23, and for Schibler, who has worked at the parish for 10 years, it was an emotional experience.

September 23, 2018. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish Groundbreaking new church building. Photo by Jason Weinrich

“I was in tears because I was thinking my parents were here at the first ground breaking ceremony,” she said. “Now, it’s me and my family here at the next phase. It was really emotional to think I’m going to have an aisle for my daughters to walk down, [and] the big, beautiful baptismal font that hopefully they’ll baptize their babies in.

“It just makes me feel so incredibly blessed and humbled to be able to be a part of this next phase,” she said.

Although such a massive parish project can be daunting, Father Toledo didn’t have to look far to gain help with funding the $8.1 million cost of the church. 477 families have already raised $6.8 million. And that help is coming from parishioners of all ages.

It was really emotional to think I’m going to have an aisle for my daughters to walk down, [and] the big, beautiful baptismal font that hopefully they’ll baptize their babies in.”

“When we started asking for help for this project,” said Father Toledo, “one of the things I started to see was the kids were asking the parents, ‘Can we help?’

“One little girl two years ago began a lemonade stand,” he continued. “She said to her mother, ‘I want to help the church.’ She presented the church with the profits from the lemonade stand.”

Many children and teens have been giving Father Toledo what they can to help the church’s latest development, and it reminds the pastor of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Children at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton participated in the new church groundbreaking. Photo by Jason Weinrich

“They say that in Jerusalem, the Western Wall is a wall that was built by the poor,” he said, “and that’s the only wall that’s still standing. I think in a sense, you can compare it to the children.”

Their involvement makes Father Toledo feel “like a proud father.”

A place to call home

It’s no wonder SEAS parishioners are oozing with excitement over the long-awaited church building.

“My heart is really at home in this parish,” said Schibler. “This church and the people that are in it are very much my second family. It’s more than just a place that we come to once a week to worship and receive Christ in the Eucharist.

“It’s really the first place I come to in the hard times and the first place I come to celebrate my joys in,” she said.

But the parish has gone through major struggles, including a scandal with former pastor Tim Evans in the early 2000s. Because Evans had married Schibler and her husband, she was even more shocked by what happened.

“It was a really great sadness that came upon our parish for a little while,” she said. “You could feel this heavy heart within the parish. It just took a lot of time for us to come together and heal.”

Father Toledo said the damage done was difficult to overcome and that it took time for SEAS to mend.

“In the last 10 years, the parish has really bounced back,” he said. “It’s a place that is welcoming, it’s a place that is family-oriented. It’s a place people are really finding a home.”

Father Joseph Toledo, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, speaks to parishioners during the new church groundbreaking. Photo by Jason Weinrich

Now, the parish is stronger than ever and bustling right along with the Fort Collins community.

“You can see that this town is flourishing with jobs and housing and recreational opportunities and material wealth,” said Schibler. “It’s just so beautiful to see that in the midst of all that, God’s people really want to see his Church flourish as well, and to grow along with the community.”

The vibrancy of SEAS was immediately clear for parishioners Mike and Angela Oberlander and their children, who joined the parish just over a decade ago.

“The parish is very welcoming,” said Mike. “SEAS has a culture of embracing folks who are new to the area and the parish.”

SEAS has several ministries and continued faith formation for children and adults, and the Oberlanders have been involved on the pastoral council and in music ministry. Angela takes part in Denver Catholic Biblical School and Mike works with the building committee.

SEAS has a culture of embracing folks who are new to the area and the parish.”

“All of these things make the parish a vibrant place,” said Mike.

The Oberlanders are now eager to enjoy the church building alongside their fellow parishioners.

“Our architects have done a fine job illustrating what the new church will look like,” said Mike, “so it is with great joy that we turned over dirt [at the groundbreaking.

“It will still be the ‘Church on the hill,’ but I think it will really convey to passersby that this is a special, holy place,” he said.

COMING UP: The shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.