Renovation to make Catholic-centered senior home even better

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

Roxanne King

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: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]