This year, St. Elizabeth’s Mission Parish on the Auraria campus recalled God’s divine mercy in a special way on the Sunday dedicated to the same.
A crowd gathered to witness the unveiling and dedication of the latest addition to the church’s property: a statue created by renowned Catholic artist Timothy Schmalz and placed in the courtyard of the quaint yet storied church. The statue “evokes the line from the Gospel of St. Matthew, ‘When I was hungry you fed me,’” said Father Sam Morehead, rector of the Cathedral, which serves St. Elizabeth’s. “The one passing by sees the figure of a shrouded man all huddled over, sitting cross-legged on the street. You know it is Christ as the hand reaching out for help has the wounds of the stigmata. Furthermore, the work shows a connection to the Holy Eucharist in having an empty chalice and a paten placed near to the figure of the Christ.”
Bishop Jorge H. Rodríguez, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, was present to pray with the crowd, blessing and dedicating the new statue.
“It was a grace-filled afternoon,” said Lauretta Proulx, pastoral associate at St. Elizabeth’s. “It was beautiful. It was filled with this grace, this peace, and joy. I didn’t really expect that. I didn’t know what to expect, but the response to the statue, Father Sam’s presence, Bishop Jorge… It was beautiful.”
The statue’s dedication comes after a surprise, “out of the blue” phone call from Schmalz. “He called us out of the blue,” said Proulx. “Honestly, I was googling him the whole time to see if he was a real person! Then when I realized his work, it was excellent. He said he had an anonymous donor in Denver that would underwrite it. When we talked and prayed about it and went back and forth, he felt that this particular statue was best; he has a series. He felt that the history of St. Elizabeth’s, with our service of the homeless since the 1800s, represented his work. And the students walking by it could be brought closer to Christ and to the importance of service to the community.”
Schmalz’s best-known sculpture is his “Jesus the Homeless,” which depicts Christ laying on a bench, covered with a blanket, recognizable only by the wounds in his feet which peek out from under the blanket. Schmalz has replicated this sculpture for many cities around the U.S.
With this new possibility in the works, “the parishioners of St Elizabeth’s quickly got behind the gift of the sculpture,” said Father Morehead. “So many of them serve the church’s daily sandwich line, an outreach ministry to the poor and homeless, which has been in operation from the late 1800s. It is believed that this sandwich line is Denver’s oldest ongoing direct ministry to the poor and needy of our community.”
This very ministry was the lynchpin for the donation of the Schmalz statue. Daily, year-round, volunteers gather at St. Elizabeth’s to cook, make sandwiches and serve lunch to countless individuals experiencing homelessness: rain, snow, or shine. “Franciscans were the founders of St. Elizabeth’s,” said Proulx. “From day one, service to the poor and those in need was their priority. During the Depression, during each era, they were committed to serving the poor. It wasn’t as elaborate; it’s expanded over the years. But it’s still in the fiber of our tapestry. That’s a key priority and I believe it always will be. I think it’s inspired by God.”
More than 100 years later, even through a global pandemic, the ministry is going strong with a cadre of devoted volunteers who love and cherish the opportunity to serve.
“I just love this opportunity to serve,” said Leigh Dunn, one of these volunteers. “Honestly, the Holy Spirit keeps bringing me back every single week. I keep coming back because God has placed this on my heart. I love the people that I work with; I love the people that we serve — they’re super grateful. And they’re just amazing people.”
Dunn was one of a handful of volunteers that kept the ministry running through the pandemic. “It was a special time,” she said, recalling the experience. “I process that time that the Lord had a special project for me in that moment. He kept us healthy and kept us coming back week after week. We had to modify our processes, but we came filled with faith and filled with, you know, ‘we’re going to keep this thing going.’”
And “keep it going” they did. On this side of the pandemic, the sandwich line and larger social ministry continues and expands as volunteers and homeless individuals return. “You just trust God,” said Tom Reck, a volunteer at the sandwich line for 17+ years. “People are gonna be in line, so you’ve gotta make something good. This is just what I do on Fridays. It’s the culmination of all that God has done for me.”
“A lot of times some of the people coming will say ‘thank you for being here,’” said Ken Schaefer, a long-time volunteer. “I return that same comment to them. I say, ‘thank you for being here, for coming.’ Because they do something for me, just as a person-to-person connection. It’s satisfying for me in that way. And it’s something — I’ve been retired now for 10 years — and it’s something I do every Friday. I look forward to it.”
In short, “it’s about community helping community,” said Mary, another volunteer.
With such a robust history of serving the poor and homeless, St. Elizabeth’s was an obvious choice for the new statue, which will be “a public witness to the good of serving others,” said Father Morehead. “It was most fitting that Bishop Jorge should solemnly bless this sculpture inviting us to a great corporal work of mercy on the very day the Church celebrates the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ.”