Preaching the good news forward

Marking a century-plus, iconic St. Dominic’s draws Highlands’ young adults

With the theme, “125 years forward: deep roots, endless possibilities,” Denver’s St. Dominic Parish toasted its yearlong milestone anniversary celebration with beer—lots of different beers—at its largest ever Oktoberfest Oct. 11.

The parking lot of the stately Gothic church at Federal Boulevard and 29th Avenue in the Highlands teemed with young adults—single and married with children, some parishioners, some not—as well as older church members and neighbors, who listened to live music and enjoyed craft beer, sausages and barbecue from popular local vendors.

“I live in the Denver Tech Center (area) and came all the way here just for the atmosphere,” said Adam Borunda, 30, who went with friends who live near the parish. “It’s great!”

Dominican Father Luke Barder, 32, parochial vicar of the church, played host to the event wearing the traditional white robes of his order as well as a colorful balloon hat and a necklace of pretzels. He kept busy introducing young people who happened upon the celebration to those who put it together.

“The purpose of Oktoberfest is to reach out to the Highlands neighborhood,” he told the Denver Catholic. “St. Dominic’s has been here 125 years and is an institution of the neighborhood. You come up Speer Boulevard and it’s what you see—it’s iconic. We want the neighbors to get to know us, we want to get to know them, and we want them to get to know each other. That’s the purpose: to build community.

“Hopefully, (people) come and they find a spiritual home here.”

The parish population, which has always reflected the changing demographics of the neighborhood, is experiencing an increase of young adults as the area has gentrified and drawn an influx of new urban professionals.

“We’re an urban parish and a lot of young people like urban settings and they’re just coming,” Father Barder said. “Most are renting around here. They like the easy access to downtown and the culture and life, yet they’re not enclosed by the downtown city feel. You have the breweries and the restaurants and (popular) streets like 32nd and Lowell or 38th and Tennyson. … You also have easy access to the mountains.”

The Oktoberfest, he explained, was the idea of a young adult parishioner. Now in its third year, the latest event exceeded last year’s record of 1,000 attendees.

Typical of the young adults the parish finds itself serving are Elizabeth Frels, a travel writer and convert to Catholicism, and her husband of two years, Jason, a geologist and cradle Catholic, both 29, who are anchors of St. Dominic’s growing young adult community, which organized the Oktoberfest.

Three years ago, the Frels, who met while attending college in San Antonio and then attended graduate school in Washington, D.C., moved to Denver’s Highlands’ neighborhood.

What drew Elizabeth who fell away from the Methodist church in her teens to the Catholic Church as a young adult was the Mass. What drew her to St. Dominic’s was its welcoming spirit and depth of preaching and spiritual growth opportunities.

“St. Dominic’s is the first place I felt that sense of true community and true loving your neighbor,” she said. “I knew (it was the right place) by the friendliness and atmosphere and the intellectual offerings. … I started RCIA immediately and joined the church that spring.”

That the parish has a novitiate where young men discerning a vocation to the Dominican order live for a year, also appeals to the Frels.

“Every year we get a new crop of young, enthusiastic men who are interested in joining the Dominican priesthood, so every year Jason and I get a new crop of friends,” Elizabeth said.

Oktoberfest was actually held just days after the 126th year since the parish started in a rented feed store at 28th Avenue and Decatur Street. But the parish postponed ending its 125th anniversary celebration until ongoing repairs to the basement of the 89-year-old church are done so as to host a greater number of people at the special year’s closing liturgy, targeted for next month.

Since it’s first Mass on Oct. 6, 1889—just two years after the Denver Archdiocese was established—the parish has been home to immigrants: first the Irish, then Italians, and in the 1970s-‘90s, Hispanics, who since the area’s redevelopment have moved out in large numbers.

“Many of them continue to come back from Thornton and Northglenn,” Father Barder said. “They’ve found a home here.

“It has always been a diverse parish,” he added. “It’s one of the oldest parishes in the archdiocese. The size and immensity (of the current church) was to show that Catholics are here to stay in an era (1920s) when anti-Catholicism was rampant, especially in Denver.”

In the 1930s, St. Dominic’s opened the first parish credit union in the archdiocese to help people cope with the Great Depression, and it ran a school from 1890 until 1973. Due to its long history, many people across the archdiocese have roots in the parish, which has always been held by the Dominicans—officially the Order of Preachers—who are looking forward to the 800th anniversary of their founding next year.

“Part of the Dominican charism is to meet the needs of the neighborhood as much as possible,” Father Barder said. “We are continuing that tradition. You go to where the people are and you meet their needs and you preach to them where they’re at.

“We want our parishioners to be well formed in the faith so when they go out from here they can preach (the good news). That’s what we’re supposed to do: empower the laity—make everybody a preacher. That’s the way the new evangelization is supposed to work.”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”