St. Francis of Assisi’s mission alive in Denver parish

Capuchins serve Annunciation Church in footsteps of spiritual father

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.

Annunciation Catholic Church channels the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi in its service to others. The parish is served by Capuchin Fransicans who follow in the footsteps of their spiritual father. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“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.”

In addition to a rich and active parish life, Annunciation Catholic School serves underprivileged students and provides top-notch educational opportunities for them. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

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.”

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COMING UP: Evangelizing one of the richest, most secular cities in the U.S.

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Evangelizing one of the richest, most secular cities in the U.S.

St. Mary’s Parish in Aspen restoring church to reach community

Deep in the Rocky Mountains lies the city of Aspen, considered one of the most hedonistic and wealthy places in the U.S. Yet, within the skiing paradise, abides also a vibrant parish that has sought to live out and share the living Gospel through beauty, creativity and faithfulness to Catholic teaching.

St. Mary’s Church has found a way to evangelize and thrive in a city that is anything but religious. Its many programs for children, youth, young adults and adults, and its evangelizing efforts have allowed it to evangelize now in a new way: Through a complete renovation of the historic parish building.

“We realized early on that if the parish does nothing [in such a secular city], it dies. We have to evangelize and be bold,” said Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary’s. “Parishes nowadays are called to be dynamically orthodox: Not watering down the faith, but remaining faithful to it in a creative way.”

The $7 million renovation will make St. Mary’s the most fully restored of all historic churches in Colorado, Father Hilton assured.

St. Mary Parish in Aspen is undergoing a full restoration in an effort to better evangelize the secular town in which it is located. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

The goal of such a restoration is to make the parish building a teaching place, a “catechism set in stone,” he said: For centuries, the Church has catechized the faithful through architecture, images and statues, in a time when most parishioners were illiterate.

The church will be restored completely. The plan is to take it apart, put in all modern infrastructure, such as the duct and electrical systems, and put it back together.

The sanctuary ceiling will then be painted with stars to symbolize the marriage between heaven and earth during the Mass. Under the dome, 20 saints from the 20th century will be painted.

They are saints that parishioners can identify more closely with, Father Hilton said. Some of them include Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and Bl. Chiara Badano.

We realized early on that if the parish does nothing [in such a secular city], it dies. We have to evangelize and be bold.”

The ceiling will be divided into coffers and feature painted birds and trees, which will recall the Garden of Eden and remind the faithful that they are worshipping Christ, the New Adam.

The renovation has been a controversial project, said John Keleher, active parishioner for over 45 years and member of the parish building committee: Parishioners were worried that the church would be modernized and lose its historicity. However, one of the greatest goals of the renovation is to do the opposite, he said.

“Much of the historic in the building was removed and covered throughout the years. Now we seek to recover what was lost, celebrating our history and making the church a welcoming place,” Father Hilton added.

Such procedure is clear in the process taken to restore the beautiful wooden window frames and baseboards that were covered with layers of paint. Each piece was taken apart, numbered, varnished and put back in its place.

In restoring the parish, much of the historic elements of the building are being uncovered after being removed and covered for years. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

Fruit of evangelization

Founded in 1882, the church is one of the oldest parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver. It was built with the sweat of the miners during the Silver Boom under the leadership of missionary priests who would cross over one of the most difficult mountain ranges in the country – the Elk Mountains – to celebrate Mass and provide the sacraments.

The zealous spirit of the founders of St. Mary’s is alive in the evangelization efforts of the parish community today and has allowed the church to fundraise the necessary funds without compromising its financial stability.

Most of the funds were derived from friends of the parish all over the country. Contrary to common belief, most Aspen residents are not able to donate much to the church due to the tremendous cost of housing.

The generosity from friends all around U.S. comes from the fact that they fall in love with St. Mary’s Church and community.

“We try to make our visitors from all over the U.S. feel welcomed and we try to stay in touch with them,” Father Hilton said. “Most come from enormous urban churches and love the warmth of St. Mary’s. It becomes like their second parish.”

The evangelization and formation for the 350 families at St. Mary’s is wide and profound. Making Mass beautiful and solemn is a top priority, the pastor said. Furthermore, the church counts with numerous formation programs for all ages.

In addition to being one of the state’s skiing hotspots, Aspen is one of Colorado’s richest and well-to-do towns, making it a sometimes difficult setting to spread the truth of the Gospel, Father Hilton said. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

According to Father Hilton, the most important endeavor besides the Mass is the family faith formation nights. Once a week, families meet for formation, are divided into groups – sacramental preparation, youth, adults – and at the end gather for Eucharistic adoration.

Moreover, the parish hosts workshops with nationally-known speakers for the formation of parishioners and offers youth and young adult programs and hiking retreats, among others.

“This parish has been very welcoming to me,” Keleher said. “We are all striving to get to heaven. This parish community has helped me do exactly that.”

“As Catholics, we know that God uses the true, the good and the beautiful to bring us to him,” Father Hilton said. “We’re blessed to be in a unique position to restore our church to a high degree. Most churches don’t have the resources to do something like this.”