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Providence, the Pope, a priest and his parish: St. John Paul II Parish prepares for an exciting future

In retrospect, it was only a matter of time — and indeed, divine providence — that the Archdiocese of Denver would name a parish after St. John Paul II.

What’s perhaps even more providential, however, is the pastor who Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila would appoint to be tasked with building this new parish from the ground up. Father James Spahn proudly displays a photograph from the pope’s visit to Denver in 1993 next to the altar at St. John Paul II Parish in Thornton, which presently meets at Frassati Catholic Academy. The picture depicts John Paul II celebrating Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and behind him stands a young seminarian holding the pope’s famous crozier — a young Father Spahn, as it were, before he was a priest.

“During World Youth Day, when [St. John Paul II] came, Archbishop Aquila was then Father Sam Aquila and I was a seminarian, and he asked me as a seminarian to help during World Youth Day in various ways,” Father Spahn told the Denver Catholic. “I was with the Holy Father every day, and every day I got to shake his hand and kiss the papal ring and have a conversation with him. It was an amazing, amazing time in my life. I got to serve on the altar with the pope and I got to hold his crozier, that very famous, iconic crozier, during the Mass when he was not holding it. It really is tremendously exciting for me to have that connection with the patron saint for our parish. Totally divine providence.”

A young Father Spahn, pictured above holding St. John Paul II’s crozier while serving Mass as a seminarian during the pope’s visit to Denver in 1993, could have never guessed that he’d be pastor of a new parish named after this great saint. Now, he is tasked with building a new church in one of Colorado’s most rapidly growing regions. (File photo by James Baca)

In 2017, Archbishop Aquila announced the establishment of two new parishes: St. Gianna Molla in Green Valley Ranch and St. John Paul II in Thornton. Father Spahn celebrated the first Mass at St. John Paul II on the March 19, 2017 — the Feast of St. Joseph. Now, nearly five years later, the parish is launching a capital campaign to raise the funds needed to build their church building. Father Spahn was tasked with a similar project when he served as pastor at Our Lady of the Valley in Windsor, giving him adequate experience to execute this important undertaking. Prior to St. John Paul II, Father Spahn was pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn for six years, where he observed a burgeoning growth that made establishing a new parish in Thornton all but necessary.

The future site of St. John Paul II will be located on 24 acres of land at 144th Ave. and Detroit St. in Thornton. After a long search for land, it was once again providence that allowed for Father Spahn to find a permanent home for the parish.

“The archdiocese had some land for years that was donated from a family from Immaculate Heart of Mary and with the intention of a future parish,” Father Spahn explained. “I presented this to the archdiocese, that the archdiocese already had this piece of land, and it was with the intention of the donor for a new parish, so I suggested we just do that rather than trying to buy new property. And they agreed.”

Father Spahn was installed as pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in February 2019. Though the parish community currently meets at Frassati Catholic Academy, it is a growing and very tight-knit community with families and parishioners both young and old. (Photo by Brandon Young)

Much work has already been happening behind the scenes, from an architect drawing up plans for the church to obtaining the proper permits that are needed when building a new parish. What’s unique about this particular project is the fact that the archdiocese plans to develop part of the 24 acres on which the parish will be located to help cover the cost of construction.

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“Because it is such a large piece of land and the parish doesn’t need all of that, we’re in a unique situation where we can develop part of the property with condos. and that will be a source of income that’ll generate some money for the parish, which will help pay for our construction,” Father Spahn said.

The land is located adjacent to another plot of undeveloped land where a future light rail station will eventually be, meaning even those who live further south will be able to visit the parish with relative ease. 

“Imagine people anywhere in the metro Denver area will be able to hop on to the light rail and travel up here to the parish,” Father Spahn said. “One of my ideas thinking long term is that it’s going to be not just a parish, it could be, in some ways, a pilgrimage site for the archdiocese. I would like to see if we could have something available for Christians to come and to pray and to be involved in some sort of pilgrimage site because of the importance of our patron saint and the importance he has for our archdiocese.”

A map showing the future location of St. John Paul II Parish in Thornton.

Father Spahn expects to break ground for the new parish building around the summer of 2023, and with the standard time of nine months to a year for construction, he is hopeful the parish will be open sometime before the end of 2024. 

“In many places in the United States, they’re closing parishes. And here we not only opened a parish that is doing really well and once we build, we will just explode and take off, but there’s also the excitement that it’s named after one of our great modern popes who came to Denver for World Youth Day and really transformed our archdiocese by his presence and now through his intercession,” Father Spahn said. “Having him as the patron saint is a tremendous blessing. God’s hand in it, really. It’s an exciting time for the parish and for the archdiocese.” 

For more information about St. John Paul II Parish and to participate in the building of the new church, visit stjohnpaul2.org or contact information@stjohnpaul2.org.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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