Towering above Eleventh and Curtis Streets with its Gothic spires and Romanesque arches, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church has served Catholics in Denver for more than a century. Established in 1878, St. Elizabeth’s was the second Catholic parish in the city. Originally composed of German immigrants, it has served various ethnic groups over the years, including Irish, Latino, and Russian Catholics. Growth of the parish community prompted several expansions, including a complete rebuilding of the church in 1898 and an extensive renovation in 1968. Today St. Elizabeth’s remains a center of worship and community on the Auraria campus.
Germans Request a Place of Worship
During the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59, a diverse group of immigrants arrived in the area that would become Auraria and Denver. German immigrants had an especially heavy presence in Auraria, which became West Denver when the towns consolidated in 1860. Gold was only one of the pull factors for immigrants; Germans and others were also drawn to Denver by the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered land for farming and saw the arrival of the railroad in 1870.
By that time, the growing number of German Catholics in West Denver found themselves without a place of worship. In 1870 they wrote to Bishop Joseph Machebeuf requesting a German priest for their neighborhood. It took several years to get a response, but in 1878 Machebeuf established Denver’s second Catholic parish to serve the Germans in West Denver. Reverend John Wagner was given the task of building the church and school that would become St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church. Wagner quickly collected enough money from the German Catholic community to make a down payment on two lots at the corner of Eleventh and Curtis Streets. The cornerstone of St. Elizabeth’s was blessed and set in place in August 1879.
In the church’s earliest days, only an estimated twelve German families attended St. Elizabeth’s. Because attendance was so small, Bishop Machebeuf decided that the church would also serve the Irish Catholic community in West Denver. An English-speaking Irish priest was brought in, and Irish and German services were conducted separately at the church. This arrangement caused tension between the two communities.
The two groups were forced to worship at the same church for almost a decade. Unhappy that the Germans controlled St. Elizabeth’s, the Irish petitioned Machebeuf for their own church in 1882. The petition went unanswered, as Machebeuf was waiting for several Franciscans from New Jersey to arrive and take charge of St. Elizabeth’s. In 1887 two Franciscans, Reverend Francis Koch and Reverend Patrick Carr, arrived. Reverend Koch became the first Franciscan rector at St. Elizabeth’s, while Reverend Carr was assigned as pastor of the English-speaking (Irish) parishioners at the church. The Irish remained at St. Elizabeth’s for another year, until Carr acquired land at West Colfax Avenue and Tenth Street to begin construction of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church. The Irish parishioners relocated services to St. Leo’s, leaving St. Elizabeth’s to the Germans.
The Franciscans who stayed at St. Elizabeth’s, Koch and Father Venatius Eder, had come at Machebeuf’s request to found the St. Elizabeth’s Franciscan House. Koch went to work right away, acquiring funds in 1890 to build a brick school and a rectory. During his years at the church, Koch would become known for his fundraising ability, with St. Elizabeth’s retiring its debt before any other church in the diocese. Koch and the Franciscan sisters at St. Elizabeth’s also became well known for their efforts to care for the poor, a tradition that other priests would continue in future decades.
Bishop Machebeuf tasked the Franciscans of St. Elizabeth’s with caring for all Catholics in Douglas, Elbert, and Jefferson Counties as well as all stations on the Kansas Pacific Railroad as far east as Cheyenne Wells (about 160 miles from Denver). The towns of Calhan, Castle Rock, Kiowa, Monument, Parker, Stratton, and Burlington also fell under the responsibility of St. Elizabeth’s friars. The friars sometimes traveled around these far-flung towns for up to a month, packing everything they needed for mass and the sacraments.
St. Elizabeth’s Grows Into New Building
Because St. Elizabeth’s was the German national church for all of Denver, the church became overcrowded by 1890. Koch began to plan for a new building. Despite the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893, construction on the new church went forward. Koch actually took advantage of the economic depression; with so many men out of work, he was able to convince them to put their time and labor into the church.
The new building—which still stands at Eleventh and Curtis Streets—was built with lava stone quarried in Castle Rock. Designed by Brother Adrian Wewer of the Sacred Heart Province in Nebraska, the new building was primarily Gothic in style (spires) but with Romanesque motifs (semiround archways). The interior featured plastered walls with vaulted ceilings, a wooden altar, pews, and a triptych rising to the ceiling behind the altar. The building cost between $43,000 and $60,000. It was consecrated by Bishop Nicholas Matz in June 1902, making it the first consecrated Catholic church in Denver.
Murder Shocks the Parish Community
St. Elizabeth’s parish was shocked on the morning of February 23, 1908, when an Italian shoemaker named Giuseppe Alia shot Father Leo Heinrichs to death during the six o’clock mass. Alia was apprehended as he ran out of the church and was taken to the city jail. Parishioners gathered in front of St. Elizabeth’s and discussed lynching Alia. They became so heated that the chief of police, McHale Delaney, was forced to call in reserves to protect the jail. Even that proved insufficient, so Alia was moved to a jail in Littleton to await trial.
Ethnic tensions existed between Denver’s immigrant groups during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly between German, Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants, and racially motivated violence was not uncommon. There were also some tensions between wealthier immigrant groups, such as Germans, and typically lower-class immigrants, such as Italians. When questioned about the murder, Alia claimed, “I have a grudge against all priests in general. They are all against the workingman . . . I did not care whether he was a German priest or any other kind of priest.” Alia’s trial began on March 9, 1908, and he was found guilty three days later. He was sentenced to hang. Despite protests from the St. Elizabeth’s Franciscans, who opposed the death penalty, he went to the gallows on July 15, 1908, at the State Penitentiary in Cañon City.
Since its consecration in 1902, St. Elizabeth’s has undergone several renovations, largely thanks to wealthy parishioners. The friary, originally built in 1891, was remodeled in 1936 with money from May Bonfils Stanton, a prominent member of the parish.
The church’s most extensive renovation occurred in 1968. By that time, the plaster inside the church was falling apart, and the wiring needed to be brought up to code. The rope carriage mounts for the bells were so dried with age that the weight of the bells threatened to break them. During the renovation, the frames in the bell tower were reinforced with steel beams anchored to the stone walls of the tower, the wooden wheels were replaced, and an electronic bell-ringing system was installed. The wooden altar was replaced with one made of Italian marble, and the old triptych above the altar was replaced with one made of ornamental iron and Neapolitan mosaic tiles depicting St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Francis of Assisi. The church also installed stained-glass windows thanks to a donation from one of its patrons.
Campus Parish Center
After a bond passed in 1968 to raze the Auraria neighborhood to build a tri-institutional college campus, many buildings in Auraria faced the threat of demolition. St. Elizabeth’s and several other historic neighborhood buildings—including the Tivoli Brewery, St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church, and Emmanuel Shearith Israel Chapel—managed to avoid destruction because they were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The State Historical Society (now History Colorado) and Denver Landmarks Commission nominated St. Elizabeth’s for the National Register in 1969, citing the church’s cultural influence, architectural style, and furnishings.
As the new Auraria Higher Education Center took shape in the early 1970s, Father Eugene Dudley of St. Elizabeth’s proposed establishing an ecumenical center for students. St. Elizabeth’s would build and fund the center at a cost of more than $1 million, which would be financed by a trust fund established by the Franciscans. The new center, known as the St. Francis Interfaith Center, opened in September 1977.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church remains a landmark not only for Denver Catholics but for students at the Auraria campus. Today the church offers worship services as well as ministries for adult faith formation and youth outreach. The church helps the homeless and poor by offering a daily sandwich line where volunteers serve soup, sandwiches, and dessert to those in need. At the campus interfaith center, students can become part of Bible study groups, receive religious counseling and education, or volunteer their time for outreach programs.