Completed in 1912, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, was the result of decades of effort on the part of the city’s early Catholic community. Sometimes called the “Pinnacled Glory of the West,” the building’s elegant French Gothic design and twin 210-foot spires made it a Denver landmark. In 1979 Pope John Paul II honored the cathedral, designating it as a minor basilica in recognition of its distinguished history and architecture, and it continues to serve the city’s Catholic community today.
Trials and Tribulations
Denver’s Catholic community took shape early in the city’s history. In 1860, two years after Denver was founded, Father (later Bishop) Joseph Machebeuf established the city’s first Catholic parish—St. Mary’s—and celebrated the city’s first Mass. The small church at Fifteenth and Stout Streets was enlarged in 1871 to accommodate a growing congregation, but it was still not large enough. In 1873 the church was elevated to cathedral status, which made the need for a larger and grander building even more pressing.
In 1880 the Immaculate Conception Cathedral Association was formed for the purpose of erecting a new and larger cathedral in Denver dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Progress was slow, in part because Bishop Machebeuf tended to focus his energy on establishing and organizing the Catholic Church in Colorado. After Machebeuf’s death in 1889, his successor, Nicholas Matz, soon decided on a site for the new cathedral. Before the land could be acquired, the Panic of 1893 intervened and caused the postponement of all building plans.
When the cathedral project restarted around 1900, the involvement of local businessman and philanthropist John K. Mullen proved crucial to its success. Mullen donated to the cause and convinced other Catholic bankers and businessmen to do the same. They acquired eight lots for the cathedral site at the northwest corner of Logan Street and East Colfax Avenue in Capitol Hill, which was rapidly filling with the mansions of Denver’s wealthiest residents.
After Bishop Matz visited Europe in 1901 and saw storied cathedrals in Rome and his native Münster, Germany, he devoted more time to getting the new Denver cathedral off the ground. The building committee raised $100,000 of the cathedral’s projected $250,000 cost, and ground was broken at the East Colfax site. But it would take several more years to complete the cathedral. The building’s cost quickly ballooned to $500,000, and the building fund was lost when its investments in Cripple Creek mining went bust. The building site remained little more than a hole in the ground over the next four years.
Pinnacled Glory of the West
The arrival of Hugh McMenamin, who became an assistant in the cathedral parish in 1905 and was appointed rector of the cathedral in 1908, devoted significant energy to resuscitating the project and raising money for it. In July 1906, the cornerstone was laid, but economic troubles intervened yet again—this time in the form of the Panic of 1907—to delay construction. McMenamin was there to keep the momentum going, and the cathedral was completed in 1912.
Called the “Pinnacled Glory of the West,” the cathedral was designed by Detroit architect Leon Coquard in the French Gothic style. When Coquard came down with an illness, the Denver firm of Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh supervised the project. Constructed with Indiana limestone on a foundation of Colorado granite, the building measured 195 feet long and 116 feet wide, with a pair of twin spires that rose 210 feet above East Colfax Avenue. The interior was decorated with statuary of Italian Carrara marble, stained-glass windows made by the Royal Bavarian Institute in Germany, and a massive 3,000-pipe Kimball organ. The pews could seat 1,500, the largest capacity of any church in the city. When the cathedral was dedicated on October 27, 1912, 10,000 Catholics paraded through the city—“the greatest religious demonstration ever witnessed in the Rocky Mountain region,” according to one Denver newspaper.
The congregation had taken on debt of about $250,000 to pay for the $500,000 cathedral. To help cover annual debt payments and operating costs totaling nearly $45,000, McMenamin sold naming rights to various parts of the new cathedral, such as statues and windows. The debt was onerous until 1919, when John Mullen put $110,000 in trust for the cathedral to be used when it would be enough to retire the debt. McMenamin quickly threw himself into a new round of fund-raising, and he was able to pay off the remaining debt the next year, with $45,000 left over.
Once the cathedral was out of debt, it was consecrated on October 23, 1921, in a ceremony attended by six archbishops, thirteen bishops, and a huge crowd estimated at 150,000 spectators.
For more than a century the cathedral has played a central role in Denver’s religious and social life, providing a stable presence while also adapting to the changing circumstances around it. When the cathedral was built, it was in Denver’s best neighborhood; John Mullen and Molly Brown were among its neighbors and parishioners. By the 1960s, Capitol Hill had changed significantly, especially along East Colfax Avenue, and the area around the cathedral probably counted more homeless residents than millionaires. The cathedral continued to keep its doors open to all during its operating hours, and in 1970 the rector, James Rasby, started a sandwich line to provide people with at least one meal a day, six days a week.
By the 1970s, the cathedral was starting to show its age. Extensive renovations in 1974–75 enlarged the sanctuary, plastered cracks, improved the sound and lighting, and modernized the electrical wiring. In 1977 the Archbishop of Denver, James Casey, requested that the Vatican declare Denver’s newly renovated cathedral a minor basilica, a distinction usually given to churches whose history, record of service, and architecture are outstanding. In 1979 Pope John Paul II made the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the first minor basilica approved during his pontificate. The Pope later celebrated Mass at the cathedral during the World Youth Day event held in Denver in August 1993.
The cathedral’s one-hundredth anniversary Mass was celebrated on October 27, 2012. It continues to serve as an active place of worship and remains the heart of the local Catholic community. The cathedral celebrates three daily masses and six Sunday masses, and the lunch program established by Rasby now serves more than 50,000 meals annually to the poor and the homeless.