Mother of God Church History

(1900-1988) by Thomas J. Noel

The handy little church at Speer and Logan was built around 1900 and housed various Protestant sects over the years. During the 1920s, it was acquired by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. This Mormon splinter sect, founded by the widow of Joseph Smith after a dispute as to who would succeed him, used the church until the 1940s when it moved to a larger building at 480 Marion Street.

When the Catholic population of Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood mushroomed during and after World War II, Archbishop Vehr paid $27,000 for the tiny church with its twin crenelated turrets fronting Speer Boulevard. To relieve crowding in neighboring parishes, Mother of God was created for the faithful living between Broadway and Downing Street, between East 1st and 8th avenues.

Upon discovering the basement pool dug for total immersion baptisms, Archbishop Vehr declared Mother of God “the only Catholic Church in Colorado with a swimming pool.” A $16,000 remodeling filled in the “swimming pool” and added two sacristies. Margie Setvin donated the grand stained glass window on Speer, which portrays the Joyous Mysteries surrounding the Mother of God.

The parish prospered during the pastorates of John Regan (1949-1954), Paul Reed (1954-1960) and John V. Anderson (1960-1969). Generous church members retired the parish debt by the mid-1950s and enabled the church to acquire the entire triangle of land bounded by Speer, Logan, and East 5th Avenue. Helen Bonfils, a parishioner then living at 707 Washington Street, donated air conditioning, a rectory, and a wedge-shaped addition on the west side of the church. A niche outside the addition was filled with a life-sized statue of the Mother of God, which keeps a vigil over passing Speer Boulevard motorists. Parishioner Marcella Tangney, who directed the choir for the parish’s dedication Mass on August 16, 1949, still leads the singers. Besides playing the organ for as many as seven Masses on a weekend, she sometimes sings solos. “Marcella is an outstanding example of how parishioners sustain a parish,” said Father Lawrence St. Peter, pastor since 1985.

Marcella’s husband, Leonard, was a journalist who spent ten years with the Denver Catholic Register and thirty-six with the Rocky Mountain News. He compiled the congregation’s silver jubilee history. Among many other active parishioners have been Colorado Governor Stephen L.R. McNichols, who brought his wife and five children from the governor’s mansion at East 8th Avenue and Logan Street. “The McNichols family usually sat in the middle of the church,” recalled Father Anderson, “unless one of the boys was serving Mass. Then they would all sit in a front pew.”

Monsignor Walter Canavan guided Mother of God from 1969 to 1980, celebrating there his fiftieth anniversary as a priest. “We’ve been blessed with such fine pastors,” observed one long-time member. “They have used a traditional, caring liturgy that helps give this church its special intimate feeling. Come see for yourself, but you’ll have to squeeze in. We only have seats for 150 and practically every Mass is a sell-out!”

Monsignor Canavan was succeeded by his assistant pastor, Charles Jones, who had taken loving care of the monsignor and sustained him as pastor for as long as possible. The next pastor, Lawrence St. Peter, was chosen to head the archdiocese during the interregnum following Archbishop Casey’s death in 1985. “That was a humbling and exciting time,” Monsignor St. Peter recalled in 1988. “Now we’re in good hands with Archbishop Stafford, and I’m relieved to be able to spend more time in my parish, which is a special, small urban church.”

Reprinted with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.