‘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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.