The Heroes Among Us

Throughout this year and in years past, the Denver Catholic publishes stories about those among us who are living lives of heroic virtue. The following are just a few of those innumerable stories out there inspiring us to ever greater heights of holiness.

Who is exempt from the greatness of God? As these stories remind us, no matter our station or circumstance in life, we are all called to be heroes for Jesus Christ.
There are heroes among us, even today.

Kendrick Castillo

Kendrick Castillo was a faithful, kind and caring individual whose life was cut short on May 7 when he heroically lunged toward a school shooter, giving his life to protect his friends. He was 18 years old and just days away from graduating high school. He grew up attending Notre Dame Catholic School in Denver and is remembered as a very helpful and active person at church. He was the first to sign up to altar serve at funeral Masses and joyfully volunteered with his dad in the Knights of Columbus. He will always be remembered for this heroic act of valor and self-sacrifice.

READ: STEM shooting hero remembered for his unwavering kindness and faith

Sister Rose Marie

Why would ESPN recently profile a woman who has been a cloistered nun for the last quarter-century? Because Sister Rose Marie was once Shelly Pennefather, the highest paid women’s basketball star in the world. Shelly rose to prominence as a star at Bishop Machebeuf High School and Villanova University before turning pro, yet this wouldn’t be enough to keep her from fulfilling her true desire — giving herself completely to Christ. This June, Shelly celebrated her 25th anniversary of profession of vows, and was able to hug her family members — something that will not happen for another 25 years. Although she can only write back once a year, her influence reaches far beyond the monastery walls.

READ: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

Servant of God Julia Greeley

Proving that even when we have nothing we still have something to give, Julia Greeley was a freed slaved who moved to Colorado in the late 1800s. She would walk the streets of Denver at night, collecting discarded items and bringing them to those in need. Many received essential food, clothing, and other necessities from Julia’s selfless work, and along the way she would distribute pamphlets about the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Fun Fact: Sacred Heart Church on Larimer is Denver’s oldest Catholic church and where Julia attended Mass. Julia has become known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity” and her cause for canonization is currently under review by the Vatican.

READ: “Simple, humble” Julia Greeley placed on path to sainthood

Monsignor Peter Quang

Growing up in Vietnam, Monsignor Peter Quang was a faithful son of the Catholic Church intensely devoted to his family and community. When the communists came into his village, his family’s faith was tested, and he was asked — at gunpoint and knifepoint — to deny his faith in God and give formal false witness against his local bishop. Refusing both, he knew he had to act. He captained a refugee boat and helped many others escape to freedom. Eventually, he landed on the shores of the United States through a sponsor. He decided to pursue a vocation to the priesthood here in Denver and has since become one of the most beloved pastors and leaders of the Catholic Church in Colorado.

READ: Years of suffering grew faith, brings year of gratitude for priest

Juan Carlos Reyes

Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic

“I’m not afraid to die. I’m ready,” Juan Carlos Reyes told Archbishop Samuel Aquila during a conversation in March earlier this year. “I know God can heal me, but if my death will give greater glory to the Father and is his will for me, then so be it.” The 33-year-old man of profound faith was at the end of his struggle with cancer. He served as the Director of Centro San Juan Diego. “As the cancer progressed, [Juan Carlos] saw the suffering he was enduring as a gift he could offer to God out of love for Christ and for his wife and three young sons,” Archbishop Aquila wrote in a column. “Let each of us pray for a deeper faith and intimacy with Jesus, so that we may invite others to encounter him.”

READ: How Juan Carlos Reyes lived the Resurrection

Lieutenant Derrick Johnson

The morning of September 11, 2001 is burned into the collective consciousness of our country. Like so many heroes created in the aftermath of that terrible day, Lieutenant Derrick Johnson of the Denver Fire Department found his calling after seeing firefighters rushing into the World Trade Center while everyone else was rushing out. Little did he know that his chosen duty and the encounter with God that awaited him after the birth of his first child, would unite in one unlikely figure: Julia Greeley, the holy woman who cared spiritually for firefighters. Derrick follows her example by being a spiritual resource for his fellow firefighters, and is currently studying to be a deacon to better serve his colleagues and the community.

READ: Denver firefighter inspired by Julia Greeley’s example

Sister Mary Gianna

Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic

Jenica Thornby would usually spend her lunch hour in the library of Columbine High School, until an odd feeling led her and her friends to leave campus for lunch on April 20, 1999. This decision undoubtedly saved them from the two students who entered the school and killed 13 people. In the aftermath and struggling to understand this horror, Jenica encountered God’s love and mercy at a youth group. This encounter with God would lead her to attend Franciscan University and spend a year with NET Ministries before joining consecrated religious life; you may now know Jenica as Sister Mary Gianna. Her testimony of overcoming grief by discovering God has helped, and is still helping, many young people encounter Christ.

READ: From Columbine to Christ

Deacon Witold Engel

By the time he was a teenager, Witold Engel had lived in three concentration camps, including in Siberia and Auschwitz. He was just three years old when his family was taken to Siberia where they survived for five years before escaping and walking for an entire year back to their native Poland. However, they were then captured by Nazi soldiers and taken to Auschwitz. Death was always nearby, but God was always there to save him. It wasn’t until after his family was transferred to a third concentration camp that they were freed. Witold and his family moved to New York, where he got married and became a deacon. Eventually relocating to Denver, Witold’s incredible life story of faith and perseverance amidst such great darkness has borne much fruit in his ministry to others.

READ: Denver deacon recounts miraculous story of surviving the Holocaust

Christi Sullivan and Dr. Jim Langley

Protecting kids should be one of the highest priorities of all youth-serving institutions and organizations. Two people have worked unceasingly to make this a reality in the Archdiocese of Denver: Christi Sullivan and Dr. Jim Langley. Since the archdiocese created the Office of Child and Youth Protection in 2002, over 85,000 adults have been trained to recognize and report child abuse. Sullivan is the director and has served for eight years in the office. Dr. Langley is the Victim Assistance Coordinator and meets with anyone needing help with any kind of abuse or neglect. Together, they have helped bring a measure of healing and justice to victims of sexual abuse and have helped make the archdiocese a safer place for children.

READ: Q&A: How the Office of Child and Youth Protection helps keep kids safe


Photo by Andrew Wright / Denver Catholic

No one is perfect. No one has every gift. Nonetheless, some offer everything they do have for others in the name of Jesus Christ. These men are our priests. They humbly serve the people of God, offering the sacraments and acting as a loving presence in each of our lives. Much like first responders, priests run into the fray of life’s difficulties and provide crucial care for our souls. We encounter them each week at Mass acting in the person of Christ to give us the sacraments, but their duties extend far beyond the parish. They offer guidance when we are feeling spiritually destitute. They perform Baptisms for babies and Anointings of the Sick for the dying. They offer us absolution from our sins through the forgiving power of Christ. Unjustly scorned by many, our priests stand athwart the devil’s lies and bring truth to those most in need. It is for these and countless other reasons that priests are heroes in our midst.

READ: The priest I know

COMING UP: Colorado Catholic Conference 2021 Legislative Recap

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On June 8, the First Regular Session of the 73rd General Assembly adjourned. Over 600 bills were introduced this session. Policy primarily focused on transportation, agriculture, healthcare, fiscal policy, and the state budget. However, the legislature also considered and passed many bills that could impact the Catholic Church in Colorado.  

Some bills that were passed will uphold Catholic social teaching and protect the poor and vulnerable of our society while others pose potentially harmful consequences to the Catholic Church, its affiliated organizations, and Colorado citizens who wish to practice their well-founded convictions. There were also many bills that were considered by the legislature that did not pass, including two bills that would have upheld the sanctity of life and two that would have expanded education opportunity for K-12 students.  

The Colorado Catholic Conference (CCC), as the united voice of the four Colorado bishops, advocated for Catholic values at the Capitol and ensured that the Church’s voice was heard in the shaping of policy.  

Below is a recap of the CCC’s 19 priority bills from the 2021 legislative session. For a full list of the legislation the Conference worked on, please visit:  

For regular updates and other information, please sign-up for the CCC legislative network here.  

Six bills the CCC supported that were either passed or enacted

Note: Passed means the bill was approved by both chambers of the legislature and is pending the governor’s signature as of June 9, 2021. Enacted means the bill was signed by the governor and became law.  

HB 21-1011 Multilingual Ballot Access for Voters – Passed  
If enacted, counties where either 2,000 adults or 2.5% of the adult population primarily speak a language other than English will be required to provide a ballot in that language. 

HB 21-1075 Replace The Term Illegal Alien – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1075, the term “illegal alien” was replaced with the term “worker without authorization” as it relates to public contracts for services.  

SB 21-027 Emergency Supplies for Colorado Babies and Families – Passed  
If enacted, the state government will allocate much-needed funding for nonprofit organizations to provide diapers and other childcare necessities to families in need, including Catholic Charities.  

SB 21-077 Remove Lawful Presence Verification Credentialing – Enacted    
With the enactment of SB 77, verification of lawful presence will no longer be required for any applicant for a license, certificate, or registration, particularly in the job fields of education and childcare.  

SB 21-146 Improve Prison Release Outcomes – Passed  
If enacted, SB 146 will establish practices that ease the transition back into society for formerly incarcerated persons.  

SB 21-158 Increase Medical Providers for Senior Citizens – Passed  
If enacted, SB 158 will allocate more funding for senior citizen care, which is currently understaffed and underfunded.  

Eight bills the CCC opposed that were passed 

HB 21-1072 Equal Access Services For Out-of-home Placements – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1072, Colorado law now prohibits organizations that receive state funding for placing children with adoptive or foster parents from discriminating on, among other things, the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or marital status. This new law will likely to be impacted by the imminent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

HB 21-1108 Gender Identity Expression Anti-Discrimination – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1108, “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “gender expression” are now recognized as protected classes in Colorado nondiscrimination code. This may have serious religious liberty implications for individuals and organizations that wish to practice their well-founded convictions on marriage and human sexuality. 

SB21-006 Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil – Enacted 
With the enactment of SB 006, human remains can now be converted to soil using a container that accelerates the process of biological decomposition, also known as “natural reduction.” 

SB 21-009 Reproductive Health Care Program – Passed 
If enacted, SB 009 will create a taxpayer funded state program to increase access to contraceptives.  

SB 21-016 Protecting Preventive Health Care Coverage – Passed 
If enacted, the definition of “family planning services” and “family planning-related services” will not be clearly defined in law and could potentially include abortion. Furthermore, SB 16 removes the requirement that a provider obtain parental consent before providing family planning services to a minor.  

SB 21-025 Family Planning Services for Eligible Individuals– Passed 
If enacted, SB 025 low-income women to be given state-funded contraception, “preventing, delaying, or planning pregnancy” services, which includes cessation services and sterilization services.  

SB 21-142 Health Care Access in Cases of Rape or Incest– Enacted  
The enactment of SB 142 removes the requirement that, if public funds are being used, a physician must perform an abortion at a hospital, and instead allows for abortions to be performed by any “licensed provider.”   

SB21-193 Protection of Pregnant People in Perinatal Period– Passed 
If enacted, SB 193 will eliminate an important protection in Colorado law for a preborn and viable baby when a woman is on life support.  

Five bills the CCC supported that failed  

HB21-1017 Protect Human Life at Conception – Failed 
HB 1017 would have prohibited terminating the life of an unborn child and made it a violation a class 1 felony.  

HB 21-1080 Nonpublic Education and COVID-19 Relief Act – Failed 
HB 1080 would have established a private school and home-based education income tax credit for families who either enroll their child in private school or educate their child at home, thereby expanding education opportunities for families during and after the pandemic.  

HB 21-1183 Induced Termination of Pregnancy State Registrar – Failed 
HB 1183 would have required health-care providers that perform abortions to report specified information concerning the women who obtain the procedure to the state registrar of vital statistics, thereby increasing transparency in the abortion industry.   

HB 21-1191 Prohibit Discrimination COVID-19 Vaccine Status– Failed  
HB 1191 would have prevented individuals from being coerced to take the COVID-19 vaccine by either the state or by employers.  

HB 21-1210 Modifications to Qualified State Tuition Programs – Failed 
HB 1210 would have allowed families to use some of their private 529 savings account funds for private K-12 school tuition for their children, including at Catholic schools.   

One bill the CCC opposed that failed 

SB 21-031 Limits on Governmental Responses to Protests– Failed 
SB 031 would have made it more difficult for law enforcement to protect innocent lives when protests turn violent.  

Two bills the CCC was in an “Amend” position that passed  

SB 21-073 Civil Action Statute of Limitations Sexual Assault – Enacted  
With the enactment of SB 073, the statute of limitations on bringing a civil claim based on sexual misconduct will be removed as of January 1, 2022. Under this law, victims of sexual abuse can pursue a civil cause of action if the statute of limitations has not expired, the abuse happened in Colorado, and the abuse could be considered a felony or Class 1 misdemeanor if it was a criminal case. 

SB 21-088 Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act– Passed  
If enacted, SB 88 will allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue public and private institutions for abuse that occurred between 1960-2022. Victims would have three years to bring a historical claim, starting from January 1, 2022. Claims brought during this window would be capped at $387,000 for public institutions and at $500,000 for private institutions, with the ability of a judge to double the damages depending on how the private institution handled the situation. Despite unanswered constitutional concerns regarding SB 88, the Colorado Catholic dioceses will also continue to offer opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to receive support in a non-litigious setting.   

While the legislature has adjourned the 2021 legislative session, there is still the possibility that they will reconvene later this year. To stay up-to-date on Colorado legislative issues and their impact on the Catholic Church in Colorado, be sure to sign up for the CCC legislative network HERE.