St. Elizabeth’s Church – Denver, Colorado

Built in 1898, this church honors St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

The St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church is located on the Auraria Higher Education Campus in downtown Denver. We came across it after running errands, and decided to take a look!

History

In 1870, Denver’s large population of German immigrants petitioned Bishop Machebeuf for their own priest. Thus, in 1878, Denver’s second Catholic parish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was established to serve Auraria & Southwest Denver. In 1887, two Franciscans, Francis Koch, O.F.M. (Order of Friars Minor), and Venatius Eder, O.F.M., responded to Bishop Machebeuf ’s request and came to Denver from Patterson, New Jersey, to found a Franciscan House at St. Elizabeth’s. In 1890, Fr. Koch built a $20,000, two-story brick school and in 1891, he built an $18,000 rectory.

As the German national church for all of Denver, St. Elizabeth’s became so overcrowded that the original building was torn down to construct a new one in 1898. This $69,000 Romanesque church, designed by Father Adrian, OSF, was built of rusticated rhyolite (lava stone) from Castle Rock, CO, quarries. St. Elizabeth’s long tradition of caring for the poor and hungry began early with Fr. Koch and the Franciscan sisters at St. Elizabeth’s. The Franciscan sisters who opened St. Elizabeth Grade School in September 1890, regularly collected money and food for themselves and the poor.  When Fr. Leo Heinrichs, O.F.M., became pastor of St. Elizabeth’s on September 23rd, 1907, Denver’s poor learned they had a friend in the pastor of St. Elizabeth’s, and every morning a line formed at the friary gate. Fr. Madden, the pastor at St. Elizabeth’s in the late 1970s, carried on the tradition of feeding the hungry by organizing a bologna sandwich breadline behind the church.

Thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Franciscans and the generosity of Colorado’s German Catholics, St. Elizabeth’s became the first church in the diocese to retire its debt. This allowed the church to be consecrated on June 8, 1902, by Bishop Matz. The candle holders on the interior sides of the church commemorate this feat.  Next to the church is the friary, built in 1936 by the May Bonfils Trust. Designed by Jacques Benedict, the friary is decorated by a colonnade, Stations of the Cross, and a shrine to St. Francis.

The exterior of the church features beautiful mosaic art depicting scenes from the life of Jesus.

In the 1960’s, after the Second Vatican Council introduced sweeping changes in catholic liturgy, the church interior was completely renovated to its present form in 1968. The beautiful stained glass windows were installed at that time.

In 1973, the Auraria Urban Renewal project proponents began demolishing the Auraria neighborhood. Preservationists ensured St. Elizabeth’s was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. The Auraria Higher Education Center campus replaced the Auraria neighborhood and St. Elizabeth’s became the campus chapel.  After more than a century of service to Colorado, the O.F.M. Franciscans left in 1983, turning the care of the parish over to the Capuchins, who ministered to the church’s needs until 1992. Between 1992 and 2003, the parish was intermittently administered by the archdiocese of Denver as well as the Vincentians and the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The rectory at St. Elizabeth’s is now the home of the Marian Community of Reconciliation.  In 2003, the parish of St. Elizabeth of Hungary became a community composed of both Roman and Byzantine Rites under the authority of the Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Denver.  One of the unique dimensions of this parish is that it embraces two different liturgical traditions and communities within its one parish family- Roman and Russian Byzantine. Pope John Paul II wrote in the document Lumen Orientalis (Light from the East), that the Catholic Church “breathes with two lungs, East and West.” St. Elizabeth of Hungary (and SS Cyril and Methodius Russian Byzantine Catholic Community) is one of the few places in the country, and even in the world, where the Christian West and the Christian East can encounter and enrich one another in an ongoing way within the bonds of communion.

As of June 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver relocated the Russian Byzantine Catholic Community. St. Elizabeth of Hungary was made a mission of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The early History has been adapted from the writings of Dr. Thomas J. Noel and can be found on St. Elizabeth’s website. Various authors have kept the history current.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

1207-1231

Elizabeth of Hungary had a brief life during the early part of the thirteenth century, yet experienced much; she was a child, princess, mother, queen, widow, exile, and one of the most pious women to ever live. She was able to simultaneously balance the role of prosperous sovereign with humble servant of God.

Even after her exile by her in-laws, in the years following her husband’s death, she remained strong in her faith and never wavered in her devotion to the poor. She is still remembered in Germany as “dear St. Elizabeth” and her feast is celebrated on November 17 in the Roman Catholic Church.

While most sources refer to her as Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, she is more accurately referred to as Elizabeth of Thuringia and Hesse – as she married into the Thuringian family line from Hesse, and consequently spent more of her time in her husband’s territory. Born in 1207, at the castle at Pressburg (modern day Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia), Elizabeth was the second child of Alexander/Andreas/Andrew II (different sources give diverse names) and Queen Gertrude of Hungary. As a royal daughter, the issue of marriage became an important one – even in her infancy. Ultimately, an offer was accepted and she was betrothed to Landgrafin Hermann I of Thuringia.

Elizabeth was an outstanding child who directed all of her actions and intentions to God. She was intelligent, well-educated, and a willful young girl who practiced penance regularly, refused to go to Mass in embroidered sleeves or gloves (as she felt that these luxuries were unnecessary and gaudy), and regularly gave alms to the poor. She was often lost in prayer and, at an early age, put herself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John.

Elizabeth was married between the ages of thirteen and fourteen. Hermann I had died on December 31, 1216; so instead, she married his brother, Ludwig. The match proved to be a happy one. Ludwig loved her deeply and was a kind-hearted husband. He was generous and wary of misusing his power. His ultimate goal was the service of God, and therefore their philosophies and personal morals intertwined perfectly.

Ludwig spent his reign, as he spent his life, acting for the will of God. As ruler, he traveled to Italy on behalf of the empire and emperor. In his absence, he left control of his finances and household to Elizabeth – who in turn disseminated alms, including state robes and ornaments, to all parts of the territory. In addition, she built a twenty-eight-bed hospital below the Wartburg and visited the residents daily to attend to their wants. The following year, after a brief return to Germany, Ludwig left yet again… this time on a crusade to Palestine in conjunction with Emperor Frederick II. He died shortly after leaving for Palestine, on September 11, 1227 en route to the crusade for God against the infidels.

Thus, Elizabeth was left with three children – a widow at just twenty. She was deeply upset at the loss of her beloved husband. Yet, she turned to God for aid and found it in the guidance of Caesarius of Speyer. With newfound hope, she built a monastery for the Franciscan order in 1225 at Eisenach.

However, trouble was not far behind. In 1227, she felt compelled to leave Wartburg for moral reasons and instead took up residence at Marburg. Ludwig’s brother, Heinrich Raspe, was a cruel and harsh man comparatively, and offered to provide her with just what she needed to get by. She did not agree to these terms and ultimately, his callous and uncooperative manner drove her out of Wartburg; without extra money, she could not provide for the poor of the community and her conscience would not permit her to act without regard for others. She found final refuge on Good Friday, 1228 with the Franciscans at Eisenach. It was then that she formally relinquished worldly possessions and proceeded to become one of the first tertiaries of Germany, a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. Her last act of the outside world was the completion of the Franciscan hospital at Marburg in the summer of 1228. After this, she devoted her heart and soul to the aid of the poor and sick, especially the most severely afflicted. She died only a few years later, at the age of twenty-four.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, or Thuringia, is the first royal Franciscan tertiary to be canonized. At only twenty-four years old, Elizabeth of Hungary died and the world lost of one of the most pious women to ever live. Within only four years, Pope Gregory IX named her a Saint (in May of 1235).  She is most remembered for her gentle, charitable nature and complete devotion to God’ s will. Her popularity was immediate, with most of her followers living in the regions in and around Germany and Hungary.

Source: King’s College, Women’s History

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