The State of Colorado has officially declared Dec. 22 “St. Frances Cabrini Day,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of her death. Though most Coloradans think of the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colo. when considering the saint’s influence, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Denver is also a historical jewel of her work.
It was in Denver that she became a close companion of Father Mariano Felice Lepore, a young priest determined to build a church for the Italian immigrants.
Mother Cabrini considered that in building Denver and the West, “the hardest work [was] reserved for the Italian worker,” so she had come to Colorado to bring “the holy joys” to the poor immigrants.
The Italian community and church that Mother Cabrini would help unite has kept its lively Italian identity since it was founded in 1891 as the Mount Carmel Society.
“We are a national parish within the archdiocese for all Italians, no matter where they live,” said Father Guentner, current pastor of OLMC Parish in Denver. “We receive around 200 attendees at our monthly Italian Mass and many new parishioners are able to return to their Italian roots.”
The first OLMC Church was built by Father Lepore and the Italian immigrants that came to North Denver in the 19th century. In the neighborhood that would later be known as “Little Italy,” a modest church was dedicated in 1894. After the church was destroyed by fire in 1898, the community worked hard to rebuild a more solid, fire-proof and plaster church, which was dedicated in 1904, and still stands today.
Mother Cabrini, along with the new pastor, Father Moreschini, and Frank Damascio, a parishioner and Denver contractor, led the project for making the new Church a beautiful house for God. Italian frescoes were painted, marble statues were brought from Italy and the exterior was transformed in the style of the churches of the Old World.
The brick church, featuring twin copper domes and a 1000-pound bell “Maria del Carmelina”, is “a fine example of the Romanesque Revival style” and “exhibits long-standing and ongoing cultural significance to the state’s Italian-American community,” said historian Astrid Liverman.
But the saint’s influence did not stop there. She also founded the parish school in 1902, along with four nuns to serve as teachers. They taught the second-generation immigrant children how to read and write English correctly.
Since the students’ families and school couldn’t afford supplies, the sisters had the children practice with their fingers on chilled windows during the winter, and were paid with monthly food showers.
To this day, many parochial activities continue to be heavily influenced by the church’s Italian heritage, from the annual bazar in honor of the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July, to the procession with her image through the neighborhood.
Coloradans can now recognize what parishioners have known for generations, namely, that OLMC lies at the center of Denver’s “profoundly important stories of immigration, faith, and a resilient community’s simultaneous embrace of the traditions of the old country and the opportunities of a new land.”
And St. Frances Cabrini was there to make this happen, leaving a legacy of faith, hope and charity.