St. Bernadette Parish History

St. Bernadette’s parish history:

St Bernadette ParishWhen St. Bernadette parish was created on July 2, 1947, Archbishop Vehr had already acquired a five-acre oat field near Wadsworth Boulevard, which houses the parish plant to this day.

John J. Doherty, a native of Killarney, County Kerry, was transferred from Cripple Creek to establish the first Catholic church in Lakewood. “We charge you in a special manner with the responsibility of seeking out all the lapsed Catholics,” Archbishop Vehr wrote in his July 3, 1947, letter assigning Doherty to Lakewood, and “to have a special solicitude for all the non-Catholics.”

While making plans for a church, Father Doherty began saying Masses on August 17, 1947, at West 11th Avenue and Balsam Street in a small Veterans of Foreign Wars hall guarded by a huge howitzer. The veterans were glad to rent the hall for $15 on Sunday mornings provided no one moved the pool tables. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as parishioners found the tables ideal for changing diapers and as cots for sleeping babies.

Architect John K. Monroe, a Lakewood resident, designed a brick rectory and stone church, which, in unfinished state, housed its first Mass on Christmas Eve, 1948. The twelve pews filled quickly at St. Bernadette’s, whose parish boundaries–Sheridan Boulevard on the east, West Colfax Avenue on the north, Maple Grove Street on the west, and West Alameda Avenue on the south–embraced over 200 Catholic families.

After the church debt was retired in 1951, Father Doherty and Archbishop Vehr had architect James Johnson of Lakewood design a school. George Tollefson, a parishioner, served as the contractor for the one-story, eight-room, $150,000, brick school, which opened in September 1953. The four lay teachers who opened the school were followed in the fall of 1954 by five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who commuted from Mount St. Vincent Orphanage.

The school always seemed crowded as St. Bernadette’s was a parish of young people with rapidly growing families. Sister Mary Anysia, SCL, the principal, expanded it to six grades in 1955. Four additional acres of land were acquired as a playground and a possible future high school site; four more classrooms were added in 1956. Five years later, when enrollment had soared to 756 pupils, architect J. K. Monroe designed a second-story, eight-classroom addition.

A small house at 1120 Vance Street, purchased as a convent for the sisters, also became overcrowded. The nuns moved, in February 1960, to a modern, two-story, buff brick convent at the corner of West 10th Avenue and Upham Street. The old bungalow convent became the parish caretaker’s home. After the Sisters of Charity left the parish in 1986, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Cenacle leased their old convent.

St. Bernadette church overflowed, despite a 1956 addition making room for 200 worshippers. Lakewood, which boomed during and after World War II, zoomed from a 1940 population of 1,701 to 19,338 in 1960. Our Lady of Fatima parish, created in 1958, served Lakewood Catholics living west of Garrison Street. Still, St. Bernadette’s pews filled on Sundays, inspiring parishioners in 1964 to pledge $210,000 toward a new church.

Archbishop Vehr dedicated the new church, designed by architect Henry De Nicola, on May 16, 1966. While adhering to traditional church shape, it is modern in its clean lines and functional use of space. The church filled on Sundays even though St. Jude parish was created in 1967 for Lakewood Catholics living south of Alameda and west of Wadsworth.

Father Doherty, who never lost his Irish brogue and sense of humor, retired at the age of seventy, after thirty-five years at the parish he had founded. He had come from Ireland to Denver, suffering from tuberculosis. He graduated from St. Thomas Seminary at age twenty-five in 1937, about the same time his medically predicted lifespan had expired. Hundreds of parishioners turned out for his 1982 retirement party, congratulating him on turning an oat field into a flourishing, debt-free parish.

The second pastor of St. Bernadette’s is Father Edward T. Madden, a Denver native with three sisters who are all Sisters of Loretto. In a 1986 interview with parish historian Lou Duvall, Father Madden listed as one success an ecumenical effort with other Lakewood churches to establish In Jesus’ Name Shelter, which provides food, clothing, and housing for the needy.

Among other parish coups, Father Madden included the Catholic Native Americans who meet every Sunday in Damien Hall, a chapel in the basement of the original church. Father John Quentin O’Connell, a Vincentian priest, organized this group in 1968, and it began meeting regularly at St. Bernadette’s in 1985. Known as the Kateri Takakwitha Community, this Native American group welcomes all visitors to its Masses and social events, which incorporate American Indian traditions. Among the regulars have been Charles Chaput, a Prairie Band Potowatamie who, in 1988, was ordained a bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, a diocese of 35,000 including many Native Americans.

St. Bernadette’s celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 1987. It had come a long way since 1947, when a few families gathered in the little VFW Hall for Father Doherty’s first Mass in what was then an unincorporated town of around 3,000 folks. Forty years later, Lakewood was an incorporated city of 112,860, the fourth largest in Colorado. And St. Bernadette parish, which as the pioneer Catholic church of Lakewood had given birth to three newer parishes, remains a prosperous community of 983 families with a thriving kindergarten through eighth-grade school.

St. Bernadette’s in 1988 celebrated the opening of the Courtyard, 124 one- and two-bedroom apartments across the street from the church. Lakewood’s Mayor Linda Shaw presided at the dedication of this senior housing effort, declaring, “Keeping our seniors here in Lakewood enriches our community, and we are delighted to welcome this very desirable and attractive addition to our city.”

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