‘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: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

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Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

Mark Haas

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit archden.org/promise.