King Coal and the dignity of workers

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King Coal and the dignity of workers

I grew up hearing stories about life in the coal mines. They were delivered in my grandfather’s heavy Italian accent, and often concluded with a punchline I didn’t entirely understand. (“Can’t a guy make a u-turn in this place?”)

But other stories were delivered in a more somber tone. They were stories about strikes and cave-ins, about brutality in the streets. One character loomed large — literally and figuratively — in Grandpa’s stories. His name was Shorty Martinez, and he was seven foot six, or six foot eight, or however tall Grandpa felt like making him on any given day. Shorty carried a white-handled revolver, which he used to pistol-whip strikers, or to poke in the backs of recent immigrants relieving themselves outdoors. Which was how young Dante Bonacci first made Shorty’s acquaintance.

Like most kids, I only half understood the stories, and thought of them more as fairy tales than actual events. I started to take his stories a little more seriously when I took a Colorado history class in Junior High. “Wait a minute!” I remember thinking. “My grandpa was there. Only he tells it better!”

Grandpa got another credibility boost recently when I discovered Upton Sinclair’s novel King Coal. Sinclair wrote King Coal to expose conditions in the coal mines of Southern Colorado. He traveled to Huerfano County three times during 1913-1914, just as my grandfather was arriving, to learn firsthand of the conditions there.

Turns out Grandpa wasn’t exaggerating at all. Every story he told was verified in Sinclair’s book.

Most of the mines were controlled by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel and Iron. CF&I recruited heavily overseas, convincing poor young European men like my grandfather that they could make a fortune in Colorado. But when they arrived, generally penniless, they discovered conditions significantly less rosy than they had been led to believe. Men worked deep underground, constantly risking injury or death. They lived in rickety tar-paper shacks provided by CF&I, and they were paid not in U.S. currency, but in “scrip”, redeemable only at the company store. CF&I acted in loco parentis, providing the miners’ health care, their schools, their meager shopping and their saloons. Voter fraud was rampant. Citizen miners were blocked from voting, or told who to vote for, or camp officials simply filled out their ballots for them. My grandfather told me that if there weren’t enough votes for CF&I’s preferred candidates to win, the camp mules were registered to vote.

Essentially, these young immigrants were treated like animals. CF&I’s fear of union organizing was such that they provided no common areas for miners and their families to socialize, and any hint of miners congregating together was met with pistol-whipping, beating, even imprisonment. And, in Huerfano County, Deputy Silvio “Shorty” Martinez was one of the chief enforcers.

It was a dangerous, violent place. But even Upton Sinclair didn’t realize the full extent of the dehumanization of the immigrants in CF&I’s care. In 1923, my grandmother was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, by CF&I doctors, at a CF&I facility, during a routine procedure. Apparently this was common. J.D. Rockefeller was a friend of Margaret Sangers, whose Birth Control League’s motto was “More Children From the Fit, Less From the Unfit.” And these southern European immigrants, my ancestors, were the unfit. And so they were neutered like animals, so that they couldn’t propagate, and the likes of me couldn’t enter the world.

CF&I’s problem was simple. It saw these workers — “labor” — as simply another form of capital. Their employees weren’t treated like individuals created in the image and likeness of God, with dignity and dreams and aspirations. They were treated like machinery. They were useful in extracting coal from the ground. Outside of that, they were simply problems to be controlled by any means necessary — up to and including violence.

J.D. Rockefeller could have learned a lot from St. John Paul II.  In Veritatis Splendor, he wrote about the “scandal of the dignity of every human person.” Every person, no matter how poor or weak or small or ignorant, is created in the image and likeness of God. And the only appropriate response to a human person — in any context — is love. Looking out for the best for him or her. Which, in business, means a fair exchange for labor, and safe working conditions, and the opportunity to advance and create a better life for oneself and one’s family.

I told a long, extreme story to make a short, simple point: Our Christian life doesn’t end in the workplace.  Businesses today may not house their employees in tar paper shacks or pay them in pretend “company” currency. But the story of CF&I should serve as an examination of conscience for any person who employs another person. Do I see them as images of God in my care? Or are they simply means to my own ends — a way to accomplish my goals, without regard for their aspirations and their welfare? Am I fair and reasonable? Do I strive to create a healthy working environment? Do I create opportunities for advancement, for my staff to grow and learn? Do I pay a just wage? When funds are tight, do I l try to find other ways to cut back before I lay off employees? Do I refuse to bully my underlings, and root out bullying in management?

If you want to learn more about the story, I recommend reading King Coal. If you want to learn more about the point, I recommend reading St. John Paul II’s excellent Laborem Excercens.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, I recommend taking “the scandal of the value of every human person” into the workplace with you.

COMING UP: New Lourdes church ‘in harmony with the beauty of the Liturgy’

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New Lourdes church ‘in harmony with the beauty of the Liturgy’

Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver completes renovation of continually growing church

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When the first parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes began their community in 1947, they never imagined the growth that the parish was going to have decades later.

Today, more than 70 years later, the parish, which began as folding chairs and the hardwood floors of the first Masses celebrated in the gymnasium of a children’s shelter, has become not only one of the fastest growing parishes in Denver, but also one of the most recognized Catholic schools nationwide.

Father Brian Larkin, pastor of the parish for the last 5 years, has witnessed huge growth in the last few years.

“I believe Lourdes has flourished in so many ways simply because the glory of God’s redemption has been allowed its proper place,” Father Larkin told the Denver Catholic. “Once the love of Christ is given its primacy, allowed to radiate in all its splendor, then our faith moves from simply being an obligation and becomes what it really is: the good news of our redemption.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila dedicated the altar in the newly renovated Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver Sept. 10. (Photo by Brandon Young)

Lourdes is a very vibrant and young parish. They have large RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and marriage preparation programs to support and teach parishioners the “why” of the Catholic Church and its faith.

“The Catholic intellectual tradition is greater than any that exists, but most people aren’t aware of it,” Father Larkin explained. “I teach our RCIA class every year and I invite anyone and everyone to come regardless of whether they are already Catholic or not even interested in becoming Catholic.  Our program had about eight people in it my first year, this year we’re averaging around 90 people each week.”

In 2016, Father Brian announced the beginning of the “Capital Campaign” which intended to repair, restore and embellish the church, as well as to add a narthex gathering space for the growing community. Although at times it seemed impossible, with the contributions of parishioners and the hard work of their general contractor, Fransen Pittman, the project was successfully completed this past summer.

The current church at Lourdes was built in 1966 and had remained unchanged since then. The renovation updated and fixed major issues with mechanical and electric systems, but the main objective of the project was to improve the aesthetics of the church.

For the last couple of years during construction, half of the school gym turned into the church, but in September, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila finally consecrated the altar and re-dedicated the church.

Lourdes pastor Father Brain Larkin said he hopes the parish can be a refuge from the world.. (Photo by Brandon Young)

“A friend of mine used to say that his church ‘lied to his congregation,’ meaning that churches are meant to teach us the faith by the way they are built, and that his didn’t measure up to that standard,” Father Larkin said. “Prior to the renovation, our church wasn’t one which lied, but it didn’t inspire a deeper faith. The new church, in my opinion, is in harmony with the beauty of the liturgy — the music and the gospel resonate with the beauty of the church itself.

“Our numbers have grown, but more importantly, people are drawn into prayer with the aesthetics of the church.”

With a new and renovated parish, Our Lady of Lourdes is now serving the growing community of the south side of Denver. The parish also has one of the most recognized Catholic schools for its unique classical model of education that has been expanding over the last couple of years. In addition to the classical method of education, the school is firmly Catholic, offering daily Mass and monthly confessions, and making devotion to the Blessed Mother one of its pillars.

“Our Catholic faith is the most important part of our mission here at Lourdes Classical and everything we do begins and ends in prayer. We participate in the sacraments frequently and help our students fall in love with Jesus in the Eucharist every day,” said school principal Rosemary Vander Weele.

Evangelization means that what is eternal enters into time, so the timelessness of God breaks into 2019 America. We try to embody that paradigm in our events, in our liturgy, in our community.”

Father Larkin said he is afraid of the future of our culture and the anti-Christian feeling that seems expand daily in our country and our society. Therefore, one of his main goals at Lourdes is to deepen the faith of his parishioners.

“Christians of the coming century in the United States need to know their faith and be on fire for it, or they will likely leave as the culture battles against the Church,” he said. “My hope for Lourdes is not that we do everything, but that we go deep, that people have strong relationships with God, with each other and that the parish can be a refuge from the world.”

Furthermore, one of the greatest challenges for the pastor is to reflect the incarnation of Jesus in our society and remind us that God sent his only begotten Son into the world to provide us salvation. At Lourdes, Father Larkin said this is at the core of the parish’s ministry.

“Christ is fully God and fully man, but it has always been easier to strip him of his divinity or of his humanity.  I see evangelization that way: it’s easier to either remove Jesus from humanity and make him someone wholly alien to the 21st century, or conversely to make him just another human who looks like us, but not like God,” Father Larkin said. “Evangelization means that what is eternal enters into time, so the timelessness of God breaks into 2019 America. We try to embody that paradigm in our events, in our liturgy, in our community.”