The City of Denver, Colorado, was originally settled in 1858, by a small group of prospectors in search of gold at the point where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River meet. Two years later the settlement of Auraria incorporated with the settlement of Denver to become the city of Denver. In 1883, through Congressional Annexation, the Baker neighborhood was added to the city, settled by those in search of gold and silver, was to witness the birth of a spirit as pure, as lasting, and as immutable and precious as gold, as history clearly records.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish was born on November 18, 1883. On that day, Fr. Percy Alfred Phillips, former chancellor of the Diocese, gathered with some twenty-five families in an old abandoned store building on the corner of Vasquez and South Water streets to celebrate the first church service of his new parish. Fr. Phillips continued to celebrate Mass and to minister out of his temporary lodging for the next three years, and under his direction, the infant parish began to grow and flourish.
In 1886, Bishop Matz appointed Fr. Thomas Malone as the new pastor. Fr. Malone perceived the need for a larger and more permanent space in which to worship. It is estimated that in ten years of St. Joseph’s Parish, 82% of the present residential area comprising the Baker neighborhood came into being. With this rapid growth of a surrounding residential neighborhood came the parallel need for a larger and more suitable place in which to hold worship services. In order to meet this need, Fr. Malone began construction of a permanent Church building at the corner of West Sixth Avenue and Galapago Street, the site upon which St. Joseph’s Church has stood continuously until today.
Fr. Malone was a man of vision. He saw very clearly the value of a solid parochial education. He therefore designed the Church building so that the ground floor could be used as a parish school, while the upper floor would be used for worship services. The buildingwas completed in November of 1889, at which time Fr. Malone invited the Sisters of Mercy to come, and the school was opened. The infant parish now had a home and school of its own. Its children were secure and beinning to learn.
By 1902, St. Joseph’s as a parish was well into its childhood and seems to have become relatively stable. In 1902, the parish acquired a new pipe organ to be installed in a Denver Catholic Church. It was the pride of the new parish as it boasted two manuals (keyboards), and had twenty stops, which made it the largest pipe organ of the time. Experts who came to see it and play it considered it to be the finest organ of its type and size in the entire city of Denver. Bishop Matz dedicated the organ in a special ceremony on April 21, 1902, and the Young parish celebrated their worship of God with a joyful song accompanied by the organ that became a symbol of their growing parish. By this time St. Joseph’s had become one of the most flourishing and popular parishes of the Diocese of Denver. Four years later, on September 9, 1906, fire broke out in the church choir loft and the organ received some minor damages, which were promptly repaired.
The following ten years were marked by a remarkable growth and expansion. The Young parish was in its adolescence and rapidly maturing. The Stations of the Cross were donated by a benefactor and installed in the Church in 1905. In 1906 two side altars were erected and a new gothic high altar was installed. The parish school had been growing steadily since its inception and by this time it was necessary to find larger accommodations. A new school building, located on Fox Street, was completed in August of 1908.
The first thirty years culminated in a gala celebration. The long years of struggle and waiting had finally come to an end. The fruit of the efforts of so many became realized on July 3, 1910, when Fr. Christian Darley, C. Ss.R. celebrated his First Mass at St. Joseph’s. The Young parish, born in poverty, had given the Church a priest, the first of many more to come. Clearly, this was a sign of hope. God had indeed blessed the life of this young parish.
Throughout the following 30 years, as St. Joseph’s reached her adulthood, she underwent incredible growth and received tremendous blessings. God was good to her. But she also had her fair share of hardship and struggles. Despite all of these, the original plan of construction of the long-awaited bell tower.
History has a way of repeating itself, and all this construction and expansion placed a grave financial burden on the parish. Times were hard all across the country, but they were especially hard in Denver. Most of the parishioners of St. Joseph’s were working people, and many of them worked on railroads. In the early 1920’s the unions struck the Rio Grande Railroad. The railroad succeeded in breaking the union and laid off many of its workers. Their difficulties were lived and shared by St. Joseph’s Parish. In 1918, the traditional pew rent had been abolished and a parish association had been formed to help increase parish revenue by 50%. Despite the poor economic conditions, the parish association was obviously successful because by 1923 the parish was again financially stabile enough to have paid off the building debt and to collaborate with the Redemtorist Fathers in construction of a new rectory building. The rectory of 1923 still stands today and is a detailed replica of a medieval monastery, the only one of its kind in the state of Colorado. It is one of the few remaining Works of the famous Denver architect Jacques B. Benedict. Like the church building and the school building, it stands as a living testimony to the strength and spirit of the people of St. Joseph’s Parish, and the greatness of their vision.
In November of 1941, in the Thanksgiving issue of the St. Joseph’s High School newspaper, the Santa Fe, an editorial appeared which asked the students to reflect upon how much God had blessed our country, and to give thanks to God that, while the rest of the world was at war, our country had been preserved from the hardship and destruction. December 7, 1941, changed forever the fabric of American life, and with it, the lives of every member of St. Joseph’s Parish. Just as mothers and fathers across the world sent their sons off to war, sons whom they had given life to, educated and cared for, so did St. Joseph’s send her sons off to war. While they were away, these sons that she had given life to in Baptism, whom she had cared for and educated through the sacraments and in her school, she worried and waited and grieved for those who never returned home.
The war years were busy and painful ones for the parish. The parish hall, which in the early years had served as a school for small children, hosted those same children now fully grown who wore a uniform. St. Joseph’s Church became a center for USO activities. The women of the parish organized to teach the children skills of knitting, quilting, and the art of making scrap books. The fruits of their handiwork were then sent to the members of the parish in the field to keep them in touch with home and to ease their loneliness. Other groups of parishioners organized themselves into a force to collect scrap metals and other materials which could be recycled for use in the war effort. War bond drives were regularly held in the Church basement. A column was begun in the Santa Fe, the purpose of which was to keep track of every member of St. Joseph’s Parish who was serving anywhere in the armed forces and to keep communications open between them and the parish where so many of their friends and families remained behind.
The post-war years were good and prosperous. The economy had recovered and things were beginning to look up. Fr. Harry Smith, C.Ss.R., the pastor began construction of a gymnasium in 1950, which would serve also as an activity center for the parish and in fact for the entire West Side Community. The members of the parish donated thier time and their skills. Under the direction of architect Patrick Horgan, the gymnasium was completed in January of 1950. The Korean conflicto occupied a major part of the 1950’s, and ten years later, the Vietnam War seperated sons from their families and their parish again.
The post-war years brought major change to the city of Denver and to St. Joseph’s Parish population. Originally, the parish had been populated mostly by Irish and German immigrants, many of whom were employed by the railroads. It had been primarily a working class parish. Following the war, another group of working people began to populate the area surrounding the parish, bringing with them a cultural heritage which has been a constant blessing for the parish throughout the past forty years. In the church which held the first services in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help west of the city of St. Louis, and in which was enshrined the first replica of the famous icon in the West, which began a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that deepened and expanded the love for Mary which had been so prevalent for so many years.
By the late 1950’s the influence of Hispanic families in the parish had become so noticeable that a Spanish mision was preached for the first time from October 11-25, 1959, by Fr. Cipriano Mayo. Soon afterwards, the parish began a regular Mass in Spanish, to this day, the parish has remained primarily Hispanic in population. Fr. Joseph Meunier, C.Ss.R. began an organization of Catholic deaf and hard of hearing persons, and began to say Mass regularly for them in sign language. For years, until his death, he labored tirelessly to serve the spiritual needs of these people whom he loved and whom he believed God had given to him. This organization still exists and celebrated its 25th anniversary in the summer of 1982. It is no longer centered at St.Joseph. Fr. Meunier’s work was continued through the 1970’s by Fr. Cambell, who was instrumental in founding the Denver chapter of the Legion of Mary among the deaf.
On a side altar in the front of the church, next to the Sacred Heart, there stands a statue of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen ever to be proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church. The presence of her memory, and indeed the physical presence of the saint in St. Joseph’s is a story in itself. She would visit the sick in Denver General Hospital and climb the twenty-one steps to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, she displayed the greatest benefit which St. Joseph’s has offered to the people of Denver. A poor Italian immigrant herself, recognized her native Country’s saint, Joseph the Worker, a source of strength which helped her among the poor working people. Since that time, countless other saints, known and unknown to us, have passed through the doors of the building, climbed those same twenty-one steps, and prayed to the foster father of Christ, knowing that they would finda source of comfort in their time of need.
1983 was a year of great joy as the Parish celebrated its 100th birthday. A fundraiser began for the purchase and construction of a new pipe organ and for the installation of an elevator, both of which were installed in the church building over the next few years. The pipe organ is reminiscent of the early years of the church and is a symbol of hope the parish has for the future. The organ of St. Joseph remains one of the finest church organs in the city of Denver.
The cornerstone of the Church building was laid in November of 1889. The celebration of the Parish’s 100th birthday will be relived as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the laying of this stone. In preparation for this historic anniversary, an elevator has been installed in the church, further plans are being made to restore the decaying limestone of the church building, to repair the roof of the towers, and lastly to paint the outside of the church building. The laying of the cornerstone was laid in November of 1989.
The lesson of the history of this parish is the lesson of great hope. There has never been a time in the history of St. Joseph when the parish was rich, or even financially comfortable. The membership of the parish has been made up primarily of working people, and remains so to this day. St. Joseph has been lucky enough to have people that bond together with a common faith which comes from the church. St. Joseph located on the corner of Galapago and Sixth Avenue remains strong after 125 years, born in poverty, St. Joseph holds its head high, God is present here.