Renovation to make Catholic-centered senior home even better

$10.1 million project at The Gardens at St. Elizabeth in Highlands under way

In his 56 years of priestly ministry, Msgr. Don Dunn has visited a lot of senior living homes.

“They don’t always radiate happiness,” he told the Denver Catholic. Then, referring to The Gardens at St. Elizabeth in the Highlands neighborhood where he lives, he asserted, “We do.”

“It’s a happy place. We have fun together. There’s a strong sense of community.”

Msgr. Dunn, 81, is one of 88 residents — including four other priests and two religious sisters — living at The Gardens, which just started a total renovation of the 14-story independent living tower.

“When The Gardens [tower] was built in the 1980s it was state of the art, but now it needs renovated to meet the needs of today’s seniors and their active lifestyles,” said Mary Beth Bouhall, regional administrator at the facility. Located at 2835 W. 32nd Ave. in Denver, The Gardens is owned and operated by Catholic Health Initiatives Living Communities.

The $10.1 million project includes adding multiple dining areas to offer options ranging from a casual café to a formal dining room, the addition of a 30-seat movie theater, a hair salon, a massage-spa area, a pet wash, a craft area, a laundry, and a clinic for routine medical services such as blood pressure screenings. The top floor will include a fitness area and penthouses offering 360-degree views.

“The renovations are designed to make seniors’ lives easier and to encourage them to be as independent and active as they can be,” Bouhall said.

The amenities the renovation is adding coupled with a Catholic-centered community, the social gatherings of the facility and those of the vibrant Highlands neighborhood, Bouhall said, aims to make The Gardens a home with everything residents need. Construction should be completed by January 2019.

“We’ve already had a really nice response from seniors in the area about our renovation plans,” Bouhall said. “We’re really excited about our plans and they are, too, in this popular Highlands area. We are accepting applications for the apartments.”

Inspiration for the remodeling comes from the woodwork and architecture of The Garden’s 121-year-old Christ the King Chapel, a historic landmark.

“The chapel is the heart of The Gardens, so we want the renovations to complement its wood and details,” Bouhall said about the Colonial Revival-style brick church, which is flanked on one side by the independent living tower and on the other by assisted living units that serve another 75 seniors.

“The Catholic faith is a very important part of our ministry,” Bouhall said, adding that more than half of the residents at The Gardens are Catholic. “We offer Mass and the rosary daily. Throughout the day you’ll see residents of all faiths stopping into the chapel for prayer and quiet meditation. We also have a director of mission integration/chaplain who puts forward our mission [to nurture the healing ministry of the Church], core values [reverence, integrity, compassion and excellence] and Catholic identity.”

Franciscan Sister Nancy Surma, vice president of Mission Integration for CHI Living Communities, said the organization follows the Ethical and Religious Directives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for health care services.

“They are inspirational and guide our actions,” she said by phone from her Erlanger, Ky., office.

Aram Haroutunian, lay chaplain and director of Mission Integration at The Gardens, is charged with making sure the spiritual needs of the residents, Catholic and otherwise, are met. For the Masses, he does the organizing for the priest residents who take turns celebrating the liturgies.

“I can’t say enough about them,” Haroutunian said. “They are so selfless. I feel a need to protect them but they want to serve and serve and serve.”

Priest residents include Father Joseph Blanco and Father James Purfield, both of Denver; and Msgr. Dan Huber of Pueblo and Father John Slattery of Colorado Springs. Resident consecrated women are Sister Helen Kunz and Sister Mary Cerny, both Franciscans.

At a recent weekday morning Mass, the 108-seat Christ the King Chapel was nearly filled to capacity with residents and visitors as Msgr. Dunn celebrated the liturgy.

“Celebrating Mass in Christ the King Chapel is really a privilege,” said Msgr. Dunn, a Denver native who served in both the Denver and Colorado Springs dioceses and is perhaps best known for his many years leading Denver’s Catholic Charities.

Since its start, when what is now The Gardens was originally known as the Oakes Home, a tuberculosis sanatorium built by Episcopalian minister the Rev. Frederick Oakes, the chapel was intended to draw people to prayer, Msgr. Dunn noted.

“It was meant to bring the healing presence of Christ to people,” he said. “The chapel is so warm, traditional and very much a home for all of us. I’m grateful we can celebrate Mass together here with the Lord God in the center.”

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History of The Gardens

1894 – What is now The Gardens at St. Elizabeth was built as the Oakes Home, a tuberculosis sanatorium by the Rev. Frederick Oakes, an Episcopalian minister.

1897 – Christ the King Chapel (originally Chapel of Our Merciful Savior) was built.

1934 – The TB sanatorium was closed. Treatment for other conditions continued until 1941, when the building was again closed.

1943 – The Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration bought the property from the Episcopalian Diocese and used it as their motherhouse, renaming it St. Joseph Convent.

1954 – The motherhouse was relocated to Colorado Springs. The sisters renamed their former convent St. Elizabeth’s Retreat and used it as a home for the aged.

1974 – Ground was broken for a new three-story building to be built on the east side of the chapel.

1975 – Residents were moved from St. Elizabeth’s Retreat (the old Oakes Home) to the new structure, which was named St. Elizabeth Center. The original Oakes Home was demolished. Christ the King Chapel was named a historic landmark of the city of Denver.

1987 – On March 26 ground was broken for the erection of a 14-story apartment building west of the chapel.

1988 – In August, the new structure was opened and renamed The Gardens at St. Elizabeth.

1995 – The Sisters of Charity Healthcare Systems assumed control of The Gardens at St. Elizabeth.

1996 – Sisters of Charity Healthcare Systems partnered with Franciscan Healthcare and formed Catholic Health Initiatives.

1997 – Christ the King Chapel centennial.

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.”