The Heroes Among Us

Denver Catholic Staff

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

Priests

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: What parents want most from their child’s school — and how Catholic schools fulfill it

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By Carol Nesbitt

What do parents of school aged kids want most of all from their child’s school?

Safety

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

It’s probably first and foremost to know they’re safe — not only from physical harm, violence, and drugs, but also other negative influences kids have to navigate in today’s complicated and confusing world, including cultural pressures to do what ‘feels good’ instead of what is right, just and moral.

This past year, some news media outlets questioned the safety of students in Denver’s Catholic schools because of sex abuse from decades ago. The reality is that the Church and all of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic Schools have worked diligently to ensure the safety of all students. In fact, many parents say they specifically chose Catholic schools here because they feel their children are safer than the alternatives. But the term “safe” is much broader in today’s society.

“Their physical safety, as well as the safety of their souls, is something that is always on our minds as parents,” said Kelsey Lynch, a parent of two school-aged children. She and her husband, Michael, said that knowing their children were safe in school was one of the main reasons they chose St. Mary’s Catholic School in Greeley.

“St. Mary’s has proven over and over that our children’s safety is on the forefront of their minds,” she said. “They are taking every preventative step possible to keep our children safe from the evils that are so prevalent in our world today. With open communication, facing the hard topics instead of shying away from them, and vetting all people that our kids will come in contact with, we feel a Catholic school is the safest place for our kids to receive an education.”

The safety of their children’s souls is equally as important to mom Kelsie Raddatz and her husband, Justin, who have five children. Their two oldest attend St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Loveland.

“There is truly no greater lesson to learn than to know that you are so incredibly loved by God and that God is so good. These crucial lessons aren’t allowed to be spoken in public schools,” Kelsie said.

Faith

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

That’s why the Raddatzes make the financial sacrifice to send their kids to St. John’s, with the strong belief that not only will their children be physically safe, but that they will fully understand that their purpose in life is to share Jesus’ love with others through everything they do; whether it be in the classroom or on the playground, speaking to others the way they would speak to Jesus.

“Every single moment is an opportunity to see Jesus present and to serve Him as well,” Kelsie continued. “What a blessed environment for our kids to learn and practice such crucial lessons!”

The Lynches say they can’t do it alone. For their children to become the saints they are called to be, the Lynches know that they need to work in partnership with their school community.

“Our kids’ teachers and classmates get more time with our kids during the week than we do, so it’s important that the people they are surrounded by are also helping them grow into the individuals God created them to be,” Kelsey said. “Our kids are learning what it is really like to have a strong faith family and the importance of a community that stands together in prayer and action to serve each other and the world around them, in both good and trying times.”

Kate McGreevy Crisham and her husband John echo the Lynch’s in their desire to have a strong faith foundation in their children’s education. That’s why they send their kids to St. Vincent de Paul in Denver.

“We are so fortunate in Denver to be able to choose Catholic schools because they are academically excellent AND thoroughly Catholic,” Kate said.

She and her husband wanted their faith to surround their children at home and at school. “We wanted God to be a part — actually the center — of the educational process of drawing out, igniting curiosity, working with challenging concepts and, as important, failing, struggling, and building resilience,” Kate shared. “Catholic schools value that process, encourage it, and love kids through it.”

Character

Photo by Brandon Young

She said she can see Jesus incarnate on a daily basis at St. Vincent de Paul.

“I see Jesus when I see an 8th grade boy stop to high five a group of kindergarteners. When I talk to the teachers of my kids, I see Jesus in their pure interest in what is best for my child — not what I want to hear — yet their words are delivered with professionalism and yes, love.

“From the maintenance staff to the principal, hearts are aligned in the work being done to educate the whole child.”

After exploring various options for preschool for their eldest child, Christy and Scott Kline toured Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, and although there was a free public school across the street, there was no question where they would send their kids. The decision was about so much more than simply educating their child.

“We have a ‘caught caring’ award (at the school) that is multi-faceted,” Christy said “Children are recognized for doing good — not academically — but in ways that benefit society and communities as a whole. Teachers and administration are ‘looking for the good’ in the school and finding it. When you look for something, it stands out.”

She feels that by looking for the best in people, you bring out the best. Kline also believes that strong parental involvement helps keep the school as safe as possible.

“The onus is on all of us to create an open, safe, transparent culture going forward, not just in Catholic organizations, but in all organizations and activities where children are involved,” Christy said.

Academics

Photo by Brandon Young

That same responsibility is on parents to choose schools that will reinforce the values they’re working to teach their children at home. David and Kathy Silverstein have had four children in Catholic schools in Denver over the past 20 years. Although there were many options for schools, including a charter school near their home, once they stepped foot inside St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Longmont, they knew it was the ‘only choice’ for their kids. As their children transitioned into high school, the Silversteins found that Holy Family High School was another perfect fit.

“In today’s world, finding a school that excels at education, sports and extra curriculars is challenging enough, but to find a school, particularly a high school, that prioritizes kindness, morality, personal responsibility, strength of character and just plain old being a good person — that is the uniqueness of Holy Family High School,” said Kathy. “An atmosphere of respect lives within the halls, between teachers, between students. It’s expected.”

For these families and countless others, they have experienced that it is the overall commitment by Catholic schools to keep students safe, to help them truly know they are loved by God, to incorporate faith into every subject area, and to set high expectations for students which reinforces parents’ decision to choose Catholic schools for their kids.

“My greatest desire for my children is for them to know how deeply they are loved by Jesus (and us, too!) and that their whole purpose in this life is to share Jesus’ love with others through every single thing they do,” Kelsie Raddatz said. “The classrooms are such a beautiful example of Jesus’ presence!”