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Preaching the good news forward

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.

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“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.”

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