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HomeLocalAround the ArchdioceseJ.K. Mullen's 'legendary' Catholic philanthropy endures in Colorado today

J.K. Mullen’s ‘legendary’ Catholic philanthropy endures in Colorado today

At the farewell Mass honoring the century-plus ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor at Denver’s Mullen Home for the Aged Poor, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila remembered the married couple who made the home possible: John K. and Catherine Mullen. 

“They donated the home and the Little Sisters agreed to come,” he said at the Oct. 25 Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. “They desired … that people who were destitute and elderly would know the love of God and receive that love.”

The eponymous home, which closed last month, was just one of several entities that comprise the legacy of the Irish immigrant couple’s Catholic faith and generosity. 

John Kernan Mullen was born in 1847 in Ballinasloe, Galway County, Ireland. In 1856, due to the Great Famine, he and his family fled to the United States, settling in Oriskany Falls, N.Y. At age 14, he quit school to become a miller’s apprentice and help support his family. By age 20, he was managing the mill. Seeking better prospects, he worked in Nebraska and Kansas before making his way to a vibrant, young Denver in 1871.  

“When … I came here, there were no old people, we were all young,” he recalled in a 1926 letter quoted in the biography Pride of the Rockies: The Life of Colorado’s Premiere Irish Patron, John Kernan Mullen by William Convery III.  

The legacy and philanthropy of J.K. Mullen may not be as recognizable as it once was in Colorado, but his contributions were foundational to many of the Catholic institutions and others that have become synonymous with Colorado culture. (Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library)

Mullen labored at a mill for room and board and within two years was promoted to manager. A devout Catholic, on Sundays he taught catechism at St. Mary Church, predecessor to the Cathedral Basilica. There he met fellow catechist Catherine Smith. They married in 1874 and eventually had five daughters. 

In 1875, with a partner, Mullen leased the Star Mill in north Denver. The next year, he bought his partner’s half of the business and renamed it J.K. Mullen and Company. He bought the Star and other mills, built the Hungarian Mill and patented Hungarian High Altitude Flour (which still credits Mullen on its label but is produced today by an unrelated corporation). In 1885, he founded the Colorado Milling and Elevator Co. Mullen also expanded into the land and cattle business. By 1904, he was a millionaire. He served as president of the Union Savings and Loan Association and, later, as a director of the First National Bank of Denver.  

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Led by his faith and supported in his business and charitable activities by his beloved “Kate,” Mullen shared his wealth with his employees, the Catholic Church and the wider community. During World War I, with business thriving, Mullen established a $140,000 pension fund for his employees, boosted with $10,000 from his personal savings. 

In the late 1800s and mid-1920s, when nationalism among immigrants made for poor parish relationships at the then-largely German population of St. Elizabeth Church, Mullen donated both land and funds toward the building of both St. Leo Church, where west Denver Irish worshiped, and the original St. Cajetan Church, where Hispanics worshiped. All three churches were located on what is now the Auraria Campus. (St. Leo’s was demolished in 1965. Old St. Cajetan’s is now used by the Auraria Campus. A new St. Cajetan’s was built in southwest Denver in 1975. St. Elizabeth Church remains active at Auraria.)   

“Mullen’s generosity became legendary,” historian Tom Noel notes in Colorado Catholicism.  

In 1901, Mullen and three other wealthy Catholic businessmen bought the land on which the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built. Mullen also oversaw the cathedral’s construction. The Mullen family contributed generously to the interior. In 1921, Mullen paid off the cathedral’s mortgage. Father Hugh McMenamin, the first cathedral rector, praised Mullen, saying, “there would have been no cathedral without him.” 

In 1916, Mullen bought land in Denver’s West Highlands neighborhood and donated the money to build Mullen Home for the Aged Poor. The next year, five Little Sisters arrived from France to staff it. The Little Sisters lovingly cared for the residents at Mullen Home for more than a century. 

J.K. Mullen’s generosity gave way to several institutions and memorials that are integral to the heart of Colorado. Among them is the Broncho Buster statue that still stands in Denver’s Civic Center Park. (Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library)

Among Mullen’s benevolence to Denver were funds to develop the Civic Center. He also donated the bronze Broncho Buster at Civic Center Park. His aid to friends included buying the famed Matchless Mine in Leadville in 1927 so Horace Tabor’s widow, Baby Doe, could live out her days there rent free. (Noel notes the Mullen family owned the mine until 1953, when they helped turn it into a museum.) Mullen did the same for widow Mary Elitch when Elitch Gardens fell on hard times in 1916. He bought Elitch’s, then quickly sold it with the stipulation that Mary Elitch could live there until she died. 

Mullen’s munificence outside of Colorado included a $750,000 gift to the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. to build the J.K. Mullen Memorial Library in 1923. For decades, he also funded 10 annual scholarships for Coloradans to attend the school. 

“Some of my friends appear to think that I am a little daffy on the subject of giving away large amounts of money,” Mullen wrote to a daughter explaining his philanthropy, “but I have always felt that God Almighty had a purpose in giving me the opportunity to accumulate and that he would hold me to a stern responsibility.” 

In his final years, Mullen envisioned opening an orphanage/vocational school for boys run by the Christian Brothers. He wanted to provide needy youths with an education and a trade to give them a future. But he died on Aug. 9, 1929, while it was being planned. He was 82. Kate had died four years prior. His descendants fulfilled his dream with the opening of Mullen Home for Boys in 1931. It transitioned to a high school in the 1950s-60s. Now owned by the Christian Brothers, J.K. Mullen High School has been coeducational since 1989. 

Upon Mullen’s death, according to biographer Convery, the combined worth of his company’s assets was some $20 million. His donations add up to over $2.4 million, about one-third of his personal worth at the time he died and more than 10 percent of his company’s worth.  

Through the years, family foundations have continued J.K. and Catherine Mullen’s legacy of philanthropy. Such gifts include establishing the J.K. Mullen Manuscript Room of the Denver Public Library, the Catherine Smith Mullen Nurse’s Home and the Ella Mullen Weckbaugh Memorial Chapel at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Camp St. Malo featuring the iconic Chapel on the Rock near Long’s Peak, and Camp Santa Maria near Grant, Colo.  

Today, the J.K. Mullen Foundation, run by a board of descendants, closely maintains the spirit of the one established by J.K. and Kate before their deaths for the “benefit of religious, charitable, educational, and benevolent purposes.” 

“He wanted to focus on the poor, the needy and education,” great-grandson Ken Malo, a longtime Denver real estate broker, told the Denver Catholic. 

From left: Sr. Joseph Marie, lsp, Nicole Malo, Kathy Mullen Malo, Ken Malo, Mother Provincial Julie, lsp. (Photo provided)

Great-granddaughter Kathy Mullen Malo, a retired investment banker now residing in Moraga, Calif., agreed. She added that J.K.’s interest in schools, scholarships and libraries stemmed from his curtailed education. 

“He never had the opportunity to finish school,” she said. 

A self-made man with the scarred hands of a laborer, Mullen never forgot his humble beginnings. He provided for the poor — young and old — and for widows. He sought to do right by his employees and supported his community and his Church. When the Irish and Hispanic Catholic communities encountered discrimination — which as an immigrant he too had encountered for being Irish and for being Catholic — he helped provide churches for them. (The site he donated for the original St. Cajetan’s had been his and Kate’s family home.)  

Valuing his business acumen, President Woodrow Wilson named Mullen to the U.S. Council of National Defense and to the U.S. Grain Corporation. In gratitude for his service to the Church, the Vatican made him a knight of the Order of St. Gregory and of the Order of Malta. 

Before the final blessing at the Oct. 25 Mass to mark the closing of Mullen Home for the Aged Poor, Mother Provincial Julie of the Little Sisters of the Poor, recalled the hardworking nature and Christian witness of J.K. Mullen. Fitting for the miller-philanthropist, she noted that Christ likened the Kingdom of God to yeast leavening dough to show that the Kingdom is everywhere. 

“J.K. and Catherine Mullen knew this truth … as was evidenced in the broad scope of their philanthropic gifts,” she said, adding later, “The Kingdom of God is indeed in our midst, and we have seen it … in the 105 years of our presence here. 

“Tonight, even as we say farewell, we know that each of us carry this promise of the Kingdom in us and are called to bring it to life wherever we go.” 

As with Mullen Home for the Aged Poor, Mullen’s legacy endures in the lives touched by the entities he founded and/or supported, many of which continue today, and through the family foundation that carries on philanthropy in his name. 

Roxanne King
Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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