Located at 1900 California Street in Denver, Holy Ghost Catholic Church is known for its long tradition of ministering to downtown Denver’s poor and homeless, as well as for its Renaissance-style church building designed in 1923 by Jules Jacques Benois Benedict. For nearly twenty years, however, the church existed only as a basement, until in 1943 the building was completed when Helen Bonfils funded the construction as a memorial to her parents. In the 1980s the Archdiocese of Denver sold the land adjacent to the church to the developers of the skyscraper at 1999 Broadway and used part of the proceeds to build the Samaritan House shelter a few blocks north of the church.
Parish Origins and First Church
Holy Ghost parish traces its origins to Denver’s first Catholic church, which was established in October 1860 by Joseph Machebeuf and John B. Raverdy within what is now the Holy Ghost parish. As the Denver Catholic community grew and developed, that original church became St. Mary’s Cathedral. In 1900 the site of the cathedral was sold as preparations were being made for the construction of the new Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. During the decade before the new cathedral was completed in 1911, services were held in the basement of the Immaculate Conception school and in a building at Eighteenth and Champa Streets.
In 1905 the cathedral parish was divided, with the downtown portion becoming independent. Frederick Bender was called out of retirement in California to be the new parish’s first pastor. He bought two lots at 1950 Curtis Street and paid for the construction of the first Holy Ghost Church using his own money. The cornerstone for the building was laid on May 7, 1905, and the church was completed later that summer. That building, which had a capacity of about 450 people, served as the parish church for nearly twenty years.
Partial New Building
In 1911 Bender retired and Garrett J. Burke took over the parish. He remodeled the church, and he also started the parish’s long tradition of ministering to downtown Denver’s needy population. He started the Catholic Workingman’s Club to help feed, clothe, house, and find employment for hundreds of men and women.
By the late 1910s and early 1920s, when William S. Neenan led the parish, Sunday Masses were attracting crowds of more than 1,000 people, far more than the Curtis Street church could hold. In 1922–23, Neenan paid $70,000 for a new church site at Nineteenth and California Streets. Prominent Denver architect Jules Jacques Benois Benedict was hired to design the building.
Completed in December 1923, Benedict’s plan called for a blend of Spanish and Italian Renaissance architecture that would provide the “directness and simplicity” that he believed were desirable in a downtown church. The large church would occupy the entire site and seat 1,200 people. Ground was broken on February 29, 1924, and the cornerstone was laid on October 5 of that year, but funding did not allow for the full building to be completed. Instead, only the basement was built and a temporary tar roof was erected over it. On December 14, 1924, the church was dedicated in its partially finished state, with about one-third of Benedict’s design completed.
In the 1930s, John Raymond Mulroy led Holy Ghost parish as well as Catholic Charities, whose Denver branch had started in 1919. He brought energy and urgency to Catholic Charities, making it into a strong organization that continued the kind of ministry to the needy that Garrett Burke had started with the Catholic Workingman’s Club. He started to celebrate funeral Masses for the poor and unclaimed dead, with the parish making caskets for them. He also expanded Holy Ghost, which was still a basement church, by converting a garage on the property into a parish hall and acquiring an adjacent building to serve as a library and rectory.
Bonfils Funds Church Completion
Mulroy’s tireless work on behalf of downtown Denver’s needy population made him a favorite of Denver Post publisher and philanthropist Helen Bonfils, who often attended services at Holy Ghost. In October 1940, Bonfils announced that she would fund the completion of Holy Ghost Church as a memorial to her parents.
Construction started on May 17, 1941, with architect John K. Monroe, one of Jules Benedict’s former assistants, supervising the work. The exterior featured blond bricks, cream trim, and a green tile roof. Inside, the church used about 300 tons of Colorado marble for its walls, piers, and columns, making it the largest installation of colocreme travertine marble in the country. The completed church was dedicated on July 8, 1943, in a ceremony attended by a crowd of 1,500 people.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Holy Ghost’s long tradition of serving the poor and homeless in downtown Denver continued under the leadership of John Anderson and Charles Bert Woodrich. In 1974 Anderson started Holy Ghost’s sandwich line, and in 1975 he set up the church’s health clinic.
Woodrich took over as pastor in 1978. In early 1982, when Denver was hit by a blizzard and a streak of cold weather, he decided to leave the church’s doors open to allow the homeless to sleep in the pews. Soon hundreds of people were spending the night in the church, with Woodrich continuing to welcome them until spring arrived a few months later. After this experience, the Archdiocese of Denver opened the Samaritan Shelter at Central Catholic High School in 1983.
At the same time, the Archdiocese was negotiating to sell the land and air rights adjacent to Holy Ghost Church to the developers of the 1999 Broadway office building. The Archdiocese completed the sale for about $8.5 million and used $2.4 million of that money to buy the block bounded by Larimer and Lawrence Streets between Park Avenue West and Twenty-Fourth Street, where it planned to build a dedicated homeless shelter. In summer 1985 ground was broken for the Samaritan House, which opened in November 1986.
Today Holy Ghost Church is framed by the soaring 1999 Broadway building, which was completed in 1985. The skyscraper’s modern glass façade offers a stark contrast to the Renaissance church at its base, but its curved shape also makes it look as if the taller building is cradling or sheltering the smaller church. The glass used in the skyscraper was chosen specifically to match and reflect the church’s roof.
Holy Ghost continues to offer daily Masses in English as well as a Latin Mass every Sunday, and it also serves as Denver’s Eucharistic shrine, with daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.