Sandra Garcia was on her way out of town on March 16 when she got a letter she had been expecting since last year. Signed by higher-ups at the Vatican, the letter informed Garcia that Rome is considering the plea she and her fellow congregants at Our Lady of Visitation have made to reopen their little church in unincorporated Adams County.
Garcia leads the Goat Hill Catholic Society, a group of OLV congregants who have been fighting the Archdiocese of Denver to regain control of their church since it was shuttered last April by Archbishop Samuel Aquila. Why the church was closed is up for debate. The archdiocese told congregants in meetings leading up to the closure that it could no longer supply the church with a priest; resources were stretched too thin, and congregans could just start attending the nearby Holy Trinity, they said. But in our February 6 feature story on OLV, parishioners alleged that the church had been shuttered because Aquila wanted to eventually sell the property.
Founded in the late ’40s to serve the poor, mostly agricultural workers in the surrounding Goat Hill neighborhood, OLV has deep ties to Catholics who lived in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, many of whom descended from penitentes, members of a religious order with roots in fifteenth-century Spanish Catholicism. The church has served as a spiritual home and community center ever since.
Kate Kuenstler, a nun and attorney based in Rhode Island, has been helping churches like OLV around the world fight closure. She says that after the sex-abuse cases erupted more than ten years ago, archdioceses have looked at selling small, mostly ethnic parishes like OLV and the property they occupy to help the church pay its legal expenses.
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Kuenstler says the Vatican's letter is a sign that it is taking OLV's request seriously. If the Congregation for Clergy, the Vatican body tasked with deciding such matters, rules against OLV, parishioners still have the option of petitioning to the Apostolic Signatura, the Supreme Court of the Catholic Church.
"The Congregation for Clergy for the last thirteen years has usually looked at the procedures that are followed and usually decides on the part of the bishop," she says. "Cases have been won at the Apostolic Signatura that were not won at the level of the Congregation for Clergy."
In lieu of an interview, the Archdiocese sent Westword a statement regarding the letter:
The Archdiocese of Denver has been informed that the Vatican has accepted the petition of some concerned parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish regarding the cessation of Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Visitation.
Since it has accepted the petition, the Vatican has asked the Archdiocese to provide more information. The Archdiocese believes that the facts in this case will show that it acted properly, having in mind the pastoral care of those concerned and the whole people of God.
While the Vatican is taking up the issue, Kuenstler notes, the archbishop cannot sell the property — which he has denied he's considering in editorials he's written for denvercatholic.org. Resolving the matter could take anywhere from five to seven years.
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"In addition, during that time, if he does not allow for Catholic services in the building, he will not meet the requirements of civil property law and therefore will have to begin to pay property taxes on the building," she says.
Just to be sure, Kuenstler has instructed OLV parishioners to take out advertisements in newspapers that detract any potential buyers.
Garcia feels more hopeful than she has in a long time.
"It's complete validation that at least somebody else can see what's going on here," she says. "We're in it for the long haul."