Between 1888 and 1965, St. Leo’s Catholic Church at Tenth Street and West Colfax Avenue in West Denver was the primary center of worship for Irish Catholics in the city. From the time it was built, St. Leo’s faced controversy over its role in enforcing the cultural and ethnic divisions of early Denver. Since its demolition in 1965, the church’s memory has served as a reminder of both the city’s history and the potential risks of discriminating based on race and culture.
Tensions Between German and Irish Catholics
The first Catholic church in West Denver, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was built at the corner of Eleventh and Curtis Streets in 1879. Funded by German American immigrants to Denver, the church was intended as a place of worship for Germans. However, in its earliest days there were only an estimated twelve German families that attended St. Elizabeth’s. Because attendance was so small, Bishop Joseph Machebeuf decided that the church would also serve the Irish Catholic community in West Denver, which did not yet have a church of its own. Bishop Machebeuf brought in an English-speaking Irish priest so that separate Irish and German services could be conducted. The language barrier was one reason for the separate services, but so was ethnic rivalry; neither the Germans nor the Irish wanted to worship together owing to cultural differences and tensions that had existed between the groups in the United States for decades.
The two groups were forced to coinhabit the church for almost a decade. Unhappy that the Germans controlled St. Elizabeth’s, the Irish petitioned Bishop Machebeuf for their own church in 1882. The petition went unanswered, as Machebeuf was waiting for several Franciscans 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 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 Father Carr acquired land at West Colfax Avenue and Tenth Street (just a few blocks from St. Elizabeth’s) to begin construction of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church.
Building St. Leo’s
In 1888 the Irish miller John K. Mullen provided $10,000 to build St. Leo’s Catholic Church on the land that Father Carr had acquired, with another $1,200 toward the church coming from Sunday collections. The building was made of brick, with lancet arches over the windows and a wide wooden front door. There was also an adjoining rectory (or priest’s residence) beside the church. Irish Father William O’Ryan was recruited to lead the church, while Father Carr remained at St. Elizabeth’s. The church flourished in its early years, and Irish Denverites enjoyed services conducted in English with their fellow countrymen. St. Leo’s also had a school, which was noted in 1892 as being one of the best in the city.
Sharing the Church
Peace at St. Leo’s was short lived. Within thirty years of the church’s founding, a new Catholic ethnic group arrived as economic opportunities following World War I brought greater numbers of Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants to West Denver. The Irish Americans at St. Leo’s were faced with the prospect of having to share their church with the Spanish-speaking newcomers, which caused many of them to leave the church. Father O’Ryan tried to prevent this movement, appealing to the Theatine Fathers (members of the St. Andrew Avellino Seminary in Denver) for help. In 1923 Theatine Father Humphrey Martorell began holding services in the basement of St. Leo’s for the Spanish-speaking Catholics at the parish.
In 1925 many of the benefactors who had helped pay for St. Leo’s Church decided to fund a separate parish for Spanish-speaking Catholics—called St. Cajetan’s—several blocks away at the corner of Lawrence and Ninth Streets so that the Irish would no longer have to worship alongside Hispanic Denverites.
In the decades after World War II, the demographic of St. Leo’s parish changed in a way that made it difficult to sustain the church. Several generations removed from the immigrants who had established the city, St. Leo’s parish and other Catholics in Denver were less concerned with segregating churches along ethnic lines. Younger parishioners who identified strictly as American rather than Irish American felt less tied to St. Leo’s and were finding other places to worship. Racialized postwar suburbanization also played a key role in the church’s decline, as many upwardly mobile white families moved out of central Denver during the 1950s and 1960s.
The parish community did continue to grow but not at a rate high enough to sustain funding for the church. In February 1965, St. Leo’s closed permanently, and the order was given for its demolition. Demolition occurred within three months. Today there is a vacant lot where the church once stood, across the street from the Colfax at Auraria light rail station.
The history of St. Leo’s Catholic Church demonstrates the city’s long experience with ethnic tensions. It started as a safe place for a group of immigrants who were discriminated against, yet its parish community later inflicted the same discrimination against another immigrant group. The church’s story provides insight into the ways in which ethnic tensions can shape, remake, or destroy religious congregations.