Ornate scagliola columns firmly outline the central nave of Annunciation Catholic Church as if St. Francis of Assisi upheld the Church himself. His life, deeds and words continue to inspire many men and women at the parish, bearing fruit 800 years after his death.
The Capuchins Franciscans that have served Annunciation Parish in Denver for nearly 50 years have made this possible. Led by the spirit of the saint, they have attended this Denver neighborhood with a mark of brotherhood, poverty and dedication.
“From the time of St. Francis to the present day, our whole approach to ministry is that we are primarily brothers. And [that is exactly how] we reach out to people,” said Father Charles Polifka, pastor of Annunciation Parish and Capuchin for 51 years. “Yes, we have people like myself who are ordained, but primarily, it’s a sense of brotherhood and community that we try to build.”
The parish was built by Irish, Slavic, German and Italian immigrants, consecrated in 1907, and restored by Hispanic and African-American parishioners that arrived in the 1950s.
Since the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was assigned to the parish by Archbishop of Denver James V. Casey on May 1970, the friars have looked to identify and meet the needs of the community.
“Our people want to find security and a home here, and there are many living in fear because of what is happening with immigration,” Father Polifka said. “To be able to help them have faith is big: Letting them know they are accepted, that they are loved, that they are people who bring gifts and bring greatness to our community and neighborhood. To affirm their worth and value is something that is very important.”
The way Capuchins have served the church community, which is now predominantly Hispanic, has brought about fruits in families, as Doricel Aragon, a parishioner who grew up in the neighborhood, reflected: “The church is an extension of our family. It is an example for us. It has helped us form our children with love for God and the Church.”
Poverty and dedication
Father Polifka, who is currently assisted by one other Capuchin in the parish, Father Joseph Mary Elder, hopes their Franciscan spirituality is reflected in all ministries, including the school, food bank, and youth and young adult programs.
According to James Chappell, a parishioner who has known Father Charles and the Capuchins for over 30 years since he lived in Kansas, the friars carry out this wish vividly: “They are so humble and are a wonderful group. They take seriously the vows of poverty.”
The Capuchins are not seen on golf courses. They’re out there working on their knees, playing with kids, helping people, working with divorced couples, being part of the healing process…”
“The Capuchins are not seen on golf courses,” he continued. “They’re out there working on their knees, playing with kids, helping people, working with divorced couples, being part of the healing process…”
Chappell is a member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians at Annunciation, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization that helps the pastor and parish reach its financial and spiritual goals through the planning of different events.
A critical way in which the order helps the parish is through the financial support of Annunciation Catholic School, considered one of the most important ministries by Father Polifka.
“The school provides for people in our parish and community a safe place, a loving place and a faith-filled place,” he said. “People are looking for a safe place for their kids, a place where their kids are loved and where the values of our catholic faith are lived.”
For Chappell, the success that he sees in the work of the Capuchins and staff at the school outweighs the needs and dangers students face, which range from poverty to violence and neglect.
“The children in the school are some of the very less fortunate financially in the archdiocese. But consistently their test scores show them at the top or near the top of [Denver schools],” he assured. “When you look at the percentages of kids that are successful, it’s in the 80s and 90s and not in the 40s. The education of our kids is one of the most important missions and [our Capuchins and teachers] do a great job at that.”
Father Polifka sees their mission at Annunciation Catholic School as a continuation of the mission that the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kans., left when they founded the parish school in 1890. “Their faith and community are still evident here,” he said.
“It’s powerful to see a guy in a brown rope that looks like a linebacker from the Denver Broncos surrounded by so many high school kids,” Chappell said, referring to Father Elder. “They do a great job and it’s not just me, they’re beloved by many people.”
For more on Annunciation, visit annunciationdenver.org.