Colorado Capuchins celebrate 50th anniversary the same way they serve – humbly

Aaron Lambert

On May 5, the Colorado Capuchins quietly marked their 50th anniversary of serving in Colorado.

What was intended as a jubilant celebration with Masses from both of Denver’s bishops did not happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of public Masses. However, the friars of the Capuchin Province of St. Conrad celebrated by doing what they do best: humbly serving the people of Colorado.

In the spirit of the present circumstances, however, they also began reaching out to people in a socially-distant way. They began livestreaming a Mass from the St. Francis of Assisi Friary for the faithful to tune into and are creating a series of videos on their rich 50-year history here in Colorado. Additionally, the friars have been posting daily videos of encouragement on their YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/CapuchinFranciscans). The Masses can also be viewed there.

In a blog post published on the Capuchins’ website July 12, Brother Mark Schenk, O.F.M Cap., Provincial Minister of the St. Conrad Province in Denver, wrote about the mission of the Capuchin Franciscans in Denver over the past 50 years.

“This year our province joyfully commemorates 50 years of Capuchin presence in Colorado,” Brother Schenk wrote. “Pope Pius XI once said of the Capuchins, ‘When help was sorely needed, in places that were abandoned and where no one else would go, there you will find the Capuchins.’

“Over the past 50 years, we have striven to be faithful to that identity, bearing the joy of the Gospel to the marginalized and forgotten. It was need that brought us westward and it was need that inspired our multitude of ministries to the poor, lost, sick, dying and imprisoned of Colorado.”

Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

The Capuchins came out west to Kansas in 1878 in response to a request from Bishop Louis Mary Fink of Leavenworth to care for the numerous German-speaking immigrants from Russia’s Volga River who were settling in the area around Hays. In 1970, following the Capuchin charism of going where they are needed, they expanded their ministry to Colorado at the request of Archbishop James Casey, who needed assistance in pulling Annunciation Parish in Denver back together.

On the morning of May 5, 1970, Father Paulinus Karlin and another friar on loan from Puerto Rico left Kansas and drove to Annunciation where a new chapter of Capuchin history began. The Capuchins remain at Annunciation Parish to this day, where they continue to embody the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi in brotherhood, poverty and fierce dedication to the parish and the people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Today we continue the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, bearing the Gospel to peoples and places that are neglected and forgotten,” Brother Schenk wrote. “Whether it be in the poor parishes ministering to immigrant populations, in the hospitals and care centers where our friars kneel in prayer at deathbeds or on the city streets where we offer food and fraternal love to the downcast and destitute, we want to venture where no one else will go.”

In March, the friars began livestreaming Mass from the St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Denver. Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

Among the many footprints the Capuchins have laid down in Colorado is the Samaritan House, which is now the largest Catholic homeless shelter in Colorado. Although they are no longer directly involved with its operation, the friars helped to plant the seeds for it through their Samaritan Shelter opened in 1982, and they maintain a constant presence there through a friar who serves as a chaplain.

One of the more innovative ways that the Friars reach out to those in need is through a food truck that the province launched in November 2018. Painted Franciscan brown with colorful artwork depicting local friars engaged in ministry as well as Saints Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio, and Blessed Solanus Casey, the truck includes white text on the back acknowledging partnership with the Routzon Family Foundation, while messaging on the sides identifies it as belonging to the Capuchins and describing their mission as “Messengers of God’s mercy” and “Brothers to those in need.”

Two Sundays a month the truck heads to downtown sites where the homeless gather. There, friars and volunteers hand out sack lunches and beverages. They also give out seasonal items those living on the street may need such as hats, gloves and socks. Resources the poor can avail themselves of such as medical and mental health services are listed on the lunch bags.

“At first the people were hesitant because they saw a food truck and thought they had to pay,” said Capuchin Brother Jude Quinto, recalling the truck’s first run Nov. 25. “But when they saw friars in brown habits running around, then they knew what we were up to and a crowd started forming.”

The friars opened a food truck in November 2018 as a way to help the homeless of Denver have access to free, healthy meals. Fifty years ago, Capuchin Franciscan friars made their way to Colorado to serve the people here, and they have been a vibrant piece of the faith community ever since. (Photos courtesy of the Capuchin Franciscans)

Additionally, in 2011, the friars founded the Julia Greeley guild in honor of Julia Greeley, a former slave and lay Franciscan whose cause for canonization is currently underway. If she is canonized, she would be the first saint declared from Colorado.

Today, pandemic or not, the Capuchin Franciscans of the St. Conrad Province continue to live out their charism of brotherhood and sharing the Gospel with those who need it most.

“We continue to seek out the abandoned places where aid is sorely needed,” Brother Schenk concluded, “working alongside the laity to bear the good news of the Gospel where the need is desperate and few are willing to go.”

COMING UP: St. Francis of Assisi’s mission alive in Denver parish

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St. Francis of Assisi’s mission alive in Denver parish

Capuchins serve Annunciation Church in footsteps of spiritual father

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Ornate scagliola columns firmly outline the central nave of Annunciation Catholic Church as if St. Francis of Assisi upheld the Church himself. His life, deeds and words continue to inspire many men and women at the parish, bearing fruit 800 years after his death.

The Capuchins Franciscans that have served Annunciation Parish in Denver for nearly 50 years have made this possible. Led by the spirit of the saint, they have attended this Denver neighborhood with a mark of brotherhood, poverty and dedication.

“From the time of St. Francis to the present day, our whole approach to ministry is that we are primarily brothers. And [that is exactly how] we reach out to people,” said Father Charles Polifka, pastor of Annunciation Parish and Capuchin for 51 years. “Yes, we have people like myself who are ordained, but primarily, it’s a sense of brotherhood and community that we try to build.”

The parish was built by Irish, Slavic, German and Italian immigrants, consecrated in 1907, and restored by Hispanic and African-American parishioners that arrived in the 1950s.

Since the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was assigned to the parish by Archbishop of Denver James V. Casey on May 1970, the friars have looked to identify and meet the needs of the community.

Annunciation Catholic Church channels the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi in its service to others. The parish is served by Capuchin Fransicans who follow in the footsteps of their spiritual father. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Our people want to find security and a home here, and there are many living in fear because of what is happening with immigration,” Father Polifka said. “To be able to help them have faith is big: Letting them know they are accepted, that they are loved, that they are people who bring gifts and bring greatness to our community and neighborhood. To affirm their worth and value is something that is very important.”

The way Capuchins have served the church community, which is now predominantly Hispanic, has brought about fruits in families, as Doricel Aragon, a parishioner who grew up in the neighborhood, reflected: “The church is an extension of our family. It is an example for us. It has helped us form our children with love for God and the Church.”

Poverty and dedication

Father Polifka, who is currently assisted by one other Capuchin in the parish, Father Joseph Mary Elder, hopes their Franciscan spirituality is reflected in all ministries, including the school, food bank, and youth and young adult programs.

According to James Chappell, a parishioner who has known Father Charles and the Capuchins for over 30 years since he lived in Kansas, the friars carry out this wish vividly: “They are so humble and are a wonderful group. They take seriously the vows of poverty.”

The Capuchins are not seen on golf courses. They’re out there working on their knees, playing with kids, helping people, working with divorced couples, being part of the healing process…”

“The Capuchins are not seen on golf courses,” he continued. “They’re out there working on their knees, playing with kids, helping people, working with divorced couples, being part of the healing process…”

Chappell is a member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians at Annunciation, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization that helps the pastor and parish reach its financial and spiritual goals through the planning of different events.

A critical way in which the order helps the parish is through the financial support of Annunciation Catholic School, considered one of the most important ministries by Father Polifka.

“The school provides for people in our parish and community a safe place, a loving place and a faith-filled place,” he said. “People are looking for a safe place for their kids, a place where their kids are loved and where the values of our catholic faith are lived.”

In addition to a rich and active parish life, Annunciation Catholic School serves underprivileged students and provides top-notch educational opportunities for them. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

For Chappell, the success that he sees in the work of the Capuchins and staff at the school outweighs the needs and dangers students face, which range from poverty to violence and neglect.

“The children in the school are some of the very less fortunate financially in the archdiocese. But consistently their test scores show them at the top or near the top of [Denver schools],” he assured. “When you look at the percentages of kids that are successful, it’s in the 80s and 90s and not in the 40s. The education of our kids is one of the most important missions and [our Capuchins and teachers] do a great job at that.”

Father Polifka sees their mission at Annunciation Catholic School as a continuation of the mission that the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kans., left when they founded the parish school in 1890. “Their faith and community are still evident here,” he said.

“It’s powerful to see a guy in a brown rope that looks like a linebacker from the Denver Broncos surrounded by so many high school kids,” Chappell said, referring to Father Elder. “They do a great job and it’s not just me, they’re beloved by many people.”

For more on Annunciation, visit annunciationdenver.org.