Denver Traded Columbus for César Chávez, Colorado Went for Mother Cabrini

Denver Traded Columbus for César Chávez, Colorado Went for Mother Cabrini

From the Mother Cabrini Shrine high on Lookout Mountain, you can see the development along the Front Range sprawling out across the plains. It looks peaceful...too peaceful these days. But taking the long view, by choosing to honor the comfort of Mother Cabrini over the rancor of Columbus Day, Colorado made a smart compromise.

Colorado was the first state in the country to celebrate Columbus Day, making it an official holiday in 1907. On March 20, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill into law replacing Columbus Day with Frances Xavier Cabrini Day. Days later, the gates to the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Jefferson County were closed, to honor another order from Polis: Stay home.

Denver had already done away with Columbus Day, which had become the subject of heated arguments in this city decades ago, when a resurrected parade was met by protests from Native American activists. Officially, Denver replaced Columbus Day with César Chávez Day in 2001, which explains why what's left of city offices will be closed today, in honor of the legendary civil rights and labor movement activist's birthday.

The parades continued, though, with one leading to 88 arrests in 2007. But they soon dwindled in both size and support; two years ago, there were only four floats (the Niña was being repaired), and organizers found themselves stymied by downtown street closures — and in 2019, there was no parade at all.

The state was much slower than Denver to make a move. Many ideas were floated at the Colorado Legislature for the replacement of Columbus Day, "a festering sore," according to Representative Adrienne Benavidez. Indigenous People's Day was considered, along with a 2018 proposal to dump Columbus in favor of Election Day, a state holiday on the first Tuesday of November. Last year, Benavidez suggested replacing Columbus Day with Colorado Day on August 1, the day that the Centennial State joined the union in 1876. That proposal lost in committee. "But we are very resilient and will continue to work to win senators over to the importance and need for the bill," Benavidez promised.

Frances Xavier Cabrini
And finally, they came up with a winner: Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Born in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, Italy, in 1850, Mother Cabrini  was the first American to be canonized, in 1946 by Pope Pius XII, and named the patroness of immigrants in 1950.

And not just any immigrants. She'd started her good works in her native Italy, founding the Missionary Sisters of Sacred Heart. In 1872, smallpox raged through northern Italy; Mother Cabrini visited the sick until she herself contracted the disease. After she recovered, she continued to serve the poor, the sick and the most vulnerable.

At the urging of Pope Leo XIII, she left Italy in 1889 to work with Italian immigrants in New York, accompanied by six sisters. She established schools, orphanages and a hospital there, then traveled the world to open other schools.

Right after the turn of the last century, she came to Colorado, founding a school and an orphanage in north Denver. "The foothills west of Denver held a special attraction for her," reports the Mother Cabrini Shrine website. "During her journeys in 1902 to visit the Italian workers and their families in the Clear Creek, Argentine, and South Park mining districts, Frances X. Cabrini discovered a property on the east slope of Lookout Mountain owned by the town of Golden. No reliable source of water was known to exist on the property at that time, although there were two fine barns and a springhouse built in the 1890s. In 1909-1910, she negotiated the purchase of this property as a summer camp for her charges at the Queen of Heaven Orphanage."

Along the way, she also found a spring on the property; it seemed like a miracle.

click to enlarge The grotto was rebuilt in the ’50s, commemorating where Mother Cabrini found the spring. - MOTHERCABRINISHRINE.ORG
The grotto was rebuilt in the ’50s, commemorating where Mother Cabrini found the spring.
Frances Xavier Cabrini made her last trip to the foothills in 1912, three years after she became an American citizen; she died in 1917. Her memory lives on at the Mother Cabrini Shrine, a complex that includes the Stone House that held the summer camp, a grotto around the spring, a convent and the 22-foot-high statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, placed in 1954 at the top of 373 stairs that follow the path that Mother Cabrini and her charges would take to reach the Mount of the Sacred Heart.

From there, it's easy to take the long view of a history that has included so many treacherous times, and the selfless people who've risen to the occasion, putting helping others above all else.

“Recognizing the first Monday in October as Frances Xavier Cabrini Day in recognition of Cabrini's contributions to the state of Colorado creates an opportunity to promote an appreciation, tolerance, and understanding of the different cultures that make up our state,” the bill explained.

By the way, Colorado honors César Chávez, too. Back in 2001, the year Denver City Council said goodbye to Columbus, the legislature approved making March 31 César Chávez Day, to mark the labor leader's birthday. But it's not an official state holiday; instead, it's an optional day off for state workers, who can trade it for an actual official holiday. In 2014, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 César Chávez Day; it's a U.S. federal commemorative holiday, which means that the government does not take the day off.

As if it could today. 
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun