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Former parishioners of the recently closed Our Lady of Visitation Parish say they are not ready to give up on their little church yet.
Nearly 100 parishioners from the Westminster congregation gathered in Denver earlier in July to strategize and organize a plan to get their little church reopened.
The mission church was closed in April, under the direction of Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, who stated in a letter issued to parishioners after the church closed “…members of OLV will be well served by incorporating into the programs, structure and sacramental life of Holy Trinity Parish, or other parishes nearby where the faithful of OLV live.”
Parishioners say since the closing in April, their beloved church has fallen into a state of disrepair, with overgrown weeds and a leak in the roof that has caused damage to the interior of the building.
Ruben Trujillo, 69, said he lives across the street from OLV and has been attending Mass there since he was born. His father helped build the original church, when it was known as the “boxcar church,” and says he has watched as the building is neglected.
“It’s overgrown with weeds. I go across the street and pull them, because nobody else is,” Trujillo said. “I was an altar boy there. I was born across the street, and I haven’t been to Mass since they closed us.”
Parishioner Sandi Garcia has spearheaded the effort to have the church reopened and spoke to the crowd at a fundraising meeting held at the American GI Forum July 15.
“We have a lot of options available to us,” Garcia said at the meeting. “Under the laws of the church parishioners have rights. They want us to worship, so we are going to pursue action through the laws of the Catholic Church first. Many of these types of closures have been overturned.”
The group has secured a canonical lawyer who specializes in church closures.
The parishioners have also created a nonprofit group called the Goat Hill Catholic Society to raise funds and awareness needed to help their cause.
Parishioners have sent a request to Archbishop Aquila for a written decree closing the church, and will file a request to have the decree rescinded. The canonical process will proceed all the way to the Congregation of the Clergy, who will ultimately decide if Aquila’s decision can be rescinded, and the church can be reopened for weekly Mass.
Local attorney Terry Kelly has offered the group pro-bono advice, and encouraged them to remain vigilant in their communications and efforts.
“A lot of people are looking at you, as a group. I’ve heard other parishes in Colorado are at risk of closing, and you guys are just the tip of the spear on this,” he said. “Stay together, stay involved, take pictures of the building, send testimonies and letters, and keep written records. This is not about the closing of OLV, it’s about what this community does going forward.”
Garcia said if working through the church doesn’t get OLV reopened, parishioners will pursue civil action. That, according to Kelly, would be a much more detailed process.
“Two of the original deeds specify ‘for the benefit of Our Lady of Visitation,’” Kelly said. “When you deed something for the benefit of something specifically, that puts a different spin legally. The Archbishop has breached his trustee obligation for the benefit of OLV.”
Federico Pena, a former Denver mayor and dedicated OLV parishioner, encouraged the crowd to remain united. “The church hopes we all give up and we all go away. And then what happens a year, or a year and a half from now? They sell the building.”
Lillie Stines has attended OLV since 1960, and was baptized, received her communion and watched her two sisters get married at the church, and attended several family funerals there, including her father’s.
“I always said I wanted to have my funeral there, but now? I don’t even know,” Stines questioned. “I strongly feel that the community put this church up and supported it. If we can’t use it, we should be able to knock it down and make sure the church doesn’t sell it.”
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