Located at what was once the corner of Ninth and Lawrence Streets in the Auraria Higher Education Center, St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church was built in 1926 to serve the Latino community of west Denver. The first church for Spanish-speaking Catholics in Denver, it was designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by Robert Willison. When the area was redeveloped as the Auraria campus in the 1970s, the congregation moved to southwest Denver and the church building was renovated into offices and an auditorium.
By the 1920s, the diverse Catholic community in west Denver already had two churches: St. Elizabeth of Hungary for German Catholics and St. Leo’s for Irish Catholics. But the area’s growing Latino Catholic community had no church of its own. In 1922 they received their own parish, called St. Cajetan, but they continued to worship in the basement at St. Leo’s. The congregation grew rapidly and soon needed a church of its own.
In 1923 the Irish businessman John K. Mullen, a parishioner at St. Leo’s, donated the site of his former house at Ninth and Lawrence to St. Cajetan’s Parish to be used for a church. Ground was broken in 1924, but soon the parish ran out of money. Mullen contributed more than half the cost of the church’s construction, allowing it to be completed in March 1926. Inspired by the churches of Mexico and New Mexico, architect Robert Willison’s Spanish Colonial Revival building had a stucco exterior, rounded arches, twin bell towers, and a red-tile roof. It could seat 700 people.
St. Cajetan’s became a central institution in the Hispanic community of west Denver. In 1937 the parish opened a school, and it also operated a health clinic and a credit union. Starting in 1961, it hosted an annual summer street fair in honor of St. Cajetan.
In the wake of the South Platte River flood of 1965, local authorities began to move forward with a plan to redevelop 169 acres (about 38 blocks) in west Denver as a centralized campus for three growing institutions: the University of Colorado–Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver. The urban renewal plan, which required moving the area’s roughly 350 families and 200 businesses, was received with hostility by a Latino community that wanted to stay where it was. St. Cajetan’s hosted meetings in opposition to the campus plan, but the city bond issue passed in 1969, allowing demolition and campus construction to move forward.
In 1970 St. Cajetan’s was declared a city landmark, which helped ensure its survival. The Denver Urban Renewal Agency (DURA) bought the church in 1973, when it began demolition of the neighborhood to make way for the Auraria Higher Education Center, but the congregation continued to rent the building until 1975, when it moved to a new home in southwest Denver. At that time the exact role of St. Cajetan’s on the Auraria campus remained unclear. Both DURA and the Auraria Higher Education Center had rejected the idea of turning the building into a student center.
In 1976 Governor Richard Lamm announced that $350,000 in federal funds were available to renovate the church. Over the next two years the exterior was restored and the interior was renovated to serve as a lecture and concert hall. Today St. Cajetan’s is an event center with offices in the basement.