Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
The magnificent Gothic cathedral at East Colfax Avenue and Logan Street traces its origins to a tiny, brick church completed in 1860 by Joseph P. Machebeuf. After the Denver City Town Company donated a site at 15th and Stout streets, then on the outskirts of town, Machebeuf and the pioneer Catholics of Denver erected a little chapel, which Machebeuf called St. Mary’s. City fathers rejoiced, confident that churches would help civilize their raw frontier town, which had only one other church building — the Methodist church at 14th and Arapahoe streets — but thirty-five saloons.
With mountain pine boughs, Father Machebeuf decorated the still unfinished, thirty-by-sixty-four-foot church for the first Mass on Christmas Eve, 1860. Canvas was nailed over the panel-less windows to shut out the cold and snow so that Father Machebeuf and his sidekick, Jean B. Raverdy, could start the ceremony.
These two French missionaries built, a year later, a twelve-by-thirteen-foot wooden shed behind the church as a rectory. “In this miserable shanty,” Machebeuf wrote to his sister back in France, “our beds are sacks of straw.”
How well Father Machebeuf would care for his vast new parish was suggested by how well he cultivated the soil at St. Mary’s. There, he dug a well, put up a fence, and planted flowers, vines, lettuce, radishes, onions, and something he had come to fancy during his seven years in New Mexico: chile verde.
Father Machebeuf added a sturdy wooden derrick to his garden for the first church bell in Colorado, an 800-pound monster lugged out from St. Louis. The same ox-drawn freight wagon brought to St. Mary’s Denver’s first church organ. “The Catholic Church is in the lead of all denominations,” Machebeuf boasted in 1864.
At St. Mary’s parish, the Sisters of Loretto opened St. Mary’s Academy in 1864. To house the sisters and their school, Father Machebeuf paid George W. Clayton $4,000 for his two-story, frame house near the church at 1430 California Street. During an Indian scare that summer, Machebeuf and Raverdy and Sisters Joanna Walsh, Beatrice Maes, and Ignatia Mora were defended by the parish’s stout Irish housekeeper, Sarah Morahan. Standing watch with an antique musket, she found no Indians to massacre but did chase off a gang of soldiers raiding the parish henhouse.
Humble St. Mary’s became a cathedral in 1868, when Machebeuf was consecrated the vicar apostolic of Colorado. The vicar began dressing up his diminutive cathedral — the roof was raised nine feet and the front extended sixteen feet in 1870-1871. By the time of Bishop Machebeuf’s death in 1889, St. Mary’s had Gothic stained glass windows beneath a crenelated roof line bristling with crosses and minarets.
Bishop Nicholas C. Matz, Machebeuf’s successor, made the erection of a grand new cathedral one of his top priorities. In 1890, Bishop Matz erected a $51,000 brick and red sandstone structure at 1842 Logan Street. Denver’s foremost architect, Frank Edbrooke, designed this handsome structure in the Romanesque style. The upper four stories served as the Cathedral School, while the basement was converted to the pro-cathedral. This temporary cathedral served for a long time as the 1893 depression postponed Bishop Matz’s hopes for a cathedral that looked like a cathedral.
Four prominent and wealthy members of the parish mining magnates — J.J. Brown and John F. Campion, miller John K. Mullen, and entrepreneur Dennis Sheedy — paid $28,000 for eight lots within walking distance of their Capitol Hill mansions. In 1900, the old St. Mary’s Church was sold for $24,000 to Cripple Creek gold mining tycoon Winfield Scott Stratton, who had the pioneer church demolished (the site at 1500 Stout has been, since the 1960s, a multi-story parking garage). Proceeds from the sale were used to stage a cathedral groundbreaking ceremony in 1902 and to complete the basement excavations and foundation. Shortly afterwards, work came to a halt with the discovery that Michael Callanan, the rector of the procathedral, had sunk the building fund into some dubious Cripple Creek mining properties, losing $52,794.70. Callanan also invested heavily in a glass casket company, convinced that viewable corpses would become standard burial practice. Although Father Callanan repaid the fund with almost $20,000 of his own money, Catholics became chary of cathedral building.
Into this distressing state of affairs strolled one of the most colorful and commanding characters in the history of Colorado Catholicism — Hugh L. McMenamin, known as Father Mac. Soon after he came to Immaculate Conception as an assistant in 1905, he organized fund-raising efforts, including a “Carnival of Nations” that netted $4,000, enabling construction to resume with the laying of the cornerstone on July 15, 1906. After Father Mac was appointed rector of Immaculate Conception in 1908, the construction pace quickened.
Architect Leon Coquard of Detroit produced a French Gothic design, borrowing ideas from Bishop Matz’s native cathedral at Münster and other great churches of Europe. After the famed Michigan architect became ill, Denver architects Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh, whose work included Denver’s Union Station, supervised completion of the cathedral. Slowly and with great effort, the building fund and walls were raised. Father McMenamin begged constantly for funds to complete what was becoming a $500,000 cathedral with a $26,000 bank account. To the rescue came John K. Mullen and his son-in-law, James E. O’Conner, as well as John F. Campion. J.J. McGinnity and Charles D. McPhee of the McPhee and McGinnity Lumber Company contributed money, as well as a good price on all the interior woodwork and golden oak pews. Frank Damascio, a leading Denver stonemason, laid the $30,000 foundation of Gunnison granite for this cruciform cathedral measuring 195 by 116 feet. Indiana Bedford limestone was used for the exterior walls, and the two slender Gothic bell spires, towering 210 feet above East Colfax, were capped in 1911.
On August 7, 1912, a lightning bolt knocked twenty-five feet off the west spire, setting back completion in what had become a race between Immaculate Conception and St. John Episcopal Cathedral five blocks away at 14th and Washington. St. John’s was plagued with ground water and financial difficulties. Bishop Matz and Dean Martyn Hart met and commiserated about their respective financial and construction problems. “At least,” Dean Hart told Bishop Matz, “our troubles do not come from above!”
Marble from the world’s most famous quarry — Carrara, Italy — was used for the altars, pedestals, statues, pulpit, bishop’s throne, and communion rail. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper inspired the altar table bas relief, while Murillo’s Immaculate Conceptionserved as the model for the statue of the ecstatic virgin at the thirty-foot-high main altar. Colorado Yule marble was used for the confessional, vestibules, steps, risers, baseboards, balustrades, and pillar bases. At the top of each interior column, a trinity of ribs spring from a cluster of marble wheat and grapes. These ribs support the Gothic vaulted ceiling, soaring sixty-eight feet over the slightly sloping nave with its seating for 1,500.
Art and artifacts, including a relic of the True Cross, fill the cathedral, which has side altars for the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the Sacred Heart, as well as St. Paul Chapel and the Children’s Chapel with its Guardian Angel Shrine beneath the Nativity window. School children saved enough pennies, nickels, and dimes to dedicate one small stained glass window to a nun who was their favorite teacher.
Grandest of all the art treasures are the seventy-five stained glass windows from F.X. Zetter’s Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich (the firm and its secrets for exquisite stained glass were destroyed during World War II). Dry powder paint and sparkling silver were used for the cathedral’s astonishing and ageless art. Handcrafted details as delicate as pencil-stroke-thin eyelashes individualize the large cast of stained glass characters used to dramatize the New Testament story of Christ’s life. Both east and west transept windows are fashioned with more than 20,000 pieces of colored glass. At the rear of the cathedral facing Colfax Avenue, the large rose window over the choir loft features seven “musical angels.” They accompany the magnificent Kimball pipe organ whose thirty-one speaking registers include a hauntingly realistic vox humana.
“To really appreciate this basilica,” says caretaker Alphonse Riedo, a former Swiss Guard with hair-raising tales of patrolling the Vatican during World War II, “you need to come in with field glasses. We’re open daily 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., so you can see the special glory of each of these windows at its own special time of day.”
Father Mac and Bishop Matz staged a memorable dedication ceremony on October 27, 1912, which included a parade of some 20,000 people down Broadway and up Colfax. “The completion of Denver’s most beautiful church, and the spectacle of ten thousand souls kneeling outdoors to receive the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament,” reported the Denver Republican, “was one never surpassed in the ecclesiastical history of the West.”
Behind its traditional Gothic façade, the cathedral featured 1912 state-of-the-art technology. Telephones connected all parts of the structure, which used the latest fireproof, steel frame construction, and subtle tungsten lighting built into the walls and ceiling. An up-to-date ventilation system filtered, washed, and warmed fresh air while pushing old air out of louvers built into the roof. The John F. Campion family donated the fifteen bells, which range in size from a 3,500-pound D flat to a 525-pound G flat, housed in the east tower. In the 1913 parish census, Father Mac reported a cathedral flock of “about 3,500″ of whom “the majority are Irish Americans.”
One such Irish-born American, the millionaire miller John K. Mullen, wrote a check for $110,000 in 1921 to retire the cathedral mortgage. Mullen did this, according to his barber — and he reportedly went to the barber daily — after raising the price of his flour a penny a pound, thus passing the cost along to consumers.
Father Mac was promoted to Monsignor Mac in 1933. A small, dignified man rushing about in his flowing purple robes and long white hair, he became a favorite Denver character, noted for pornography raids, powerful sermons, raids on the nearby State Capitol to denounce the Ku Klux Klan, avid support of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, and hard-nosed fund raising.
Immaculate Conception charged pew rent of twenty-five cents per adult and ten cents per child until Monsignor Mac’s death in 1947. Collecting pew rent was no problem at the eleven o’clock Sunday Mass, which was a favorite of Denver’s high society and one of the best fashion shows in town. Ushers wearing morning coats, pin-striped trousers, and white gloves unhooked the purple velvet drapes for prominent parishioners who “owned” purple pillowed pews. A chauffeur, driving a Pierce Arrow with Colorado license #1, would often drop Helen Bonfils off at the front door. Mrs. J.J. Brown (whose house, a block and half away at 1340 Pennsylvania, is now the Unsinkable Molly Brown House Museum) would come thudding up the center aisle to pew #6 with her huge walking staff, which she decorated with ribbons and flowers. Monsignor Bosetti, assistant at the cathedral from 1912 until his death in 1954, founded the choir and made it one of the best in the city. After Bosetti’s passing, Monsignor Richard Heister took his place and ably directed the choir and another of Bosetti’s projects, Camp St. Malo.
Father Walter J. Canavan became the second rector in 1947. He had been ordained in the cathedral in 1934 by Bishop Vehr and was an associate editor of the Denver Catholic Registerand a director of the Denver Press Club. Canavan, who called himself “a journalist by day and a priest by night,” charmed Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his sense of humor. He accomplished much for the cathedral, including renovation of the high school and construction of a new grade school and a new gym, which was christened Canavan Hall. In recognition of his fine work, Rome made him a monsignor in 1959. In 1969, Monsignor Canavan was followed by Monsignor James W. Rasby. The old rectory at 1854 Grant, and the nearby barn, were transformed in 1921 by architect Harry J. Manning into Cathedral High School, a prize-winning Spanish Renaissance building wrapped around a courtyard. Between the new high school and the old grade school, Oscar and Edith Mullen Malo constructed the Oscar Malo, Jr. Memorial Hall at 1835 Logan, in 1928. This elegant structure housed a gym equipped for theater as well as athletics.
The cathedral’s Blue Jays excelled at both drama and sports before the grade school closed in 1960 and the high school in 1982. The old school building at 1842 Logan reopened November 8, 1982, as the Samaritan Shelter.
Ministering to Denver’s down and out is a long and cherished tradition at Immaculate Conception, according to Monsignor Rasby. In the 1870s, the cathedral first brought the St. Vincent de Paul Society to Denver to tend to the poor, and, in 1979, Cathedral Plaza, was built at 1575 Pennsylvania Street to house the indigent elderly.
Immaculate Conception, adds Monsignor Rasby, welcomes the full range of humanity found in its Capitol Hill neighborhood. The cathedral offers everything from contemporary guitar Masses for young people to Pontifical High Masses enriched by the celebrated Basilica Vested Choir. With a staff of two priests, two permanent deacons, and two sisters, the basilica offers five weekday Masses and seven Sunday Masses. “I.C.” parishioners enjoy extended “coffee hours” after Mass on Sundays, when the library and credit union are also open. The cathedral’s Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve — a tradition ever since Father Machebeuf’s first Mass at St. Mary’s — is now televised for viewers throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
A 1974 modernization of the cathedral interior brought a lawsuit from J.K. Mullen’s granddaughter, Eleanor Weckbaugh. She, like hundreds of other traditionalists, opposed any tampering with this National Register and Denver Landmark. Despite these “improvements,” Immaculate Conception remains a good example of French Gothic architecture. In recognition of its outstanding architecture, history, and social concerns, Pope John Paul II designated Immaculate Conception in 1979 as one of twenty-nine churches in the United States to be honored with the title of basilica.
Source: Archdiocese of Denver