Our Lady of Visitation Catholic Church in Colorado, may no longer have visitors. Someone is tampering with the faith of the people who have worshipped there for at least 6 decades. Ironically, the building is surrounded by a veil of evil that may destroy what is left of a community intent on staying put. It is estimated that the land is now worth between $1.4 and 2 million. It has become prime property to land developers and a city intent on modernizing its’ infrastructure at the expense of neighbors that are lamenting its closure. Industrialization and gentrification may eventually hover over this community as Fast Tracks run past this barrio. This is coupled with an insensitive archdiocese unaware of the meaning of what this church represents to a Chicano community. Church administrators may soon be in cahoots with city government officials and private entrepreneurs to change not only the character but also the spiritual essence of a community.
The church is nestled in between modern urban life at its apex and a barrio called Goat Hill. If it isn’t a spiritual veil that has surrounded it; then it must be a political or economic one. Goat Hill is characteristic of the many barrios that have been attacked by gentrification, urban renewal and an intense economic environment that is breeding more poverty and eventually ouster of its local residents. Closing the church may be the final curtain in this theatre of the oppressed. Goat Hill has systematically been transformed into a colonia with all of the trappings of poverty including manmade and natural barriers that keep it hidden, underdevelopment, a tiendita and a Catholic Church. Although homes would be characterized as shacks, they are owned. At one time, dirt roads were the pathways. Longtime activist Jerry Roys stated to me during an interview that, “self-segregation has always been the norm for Chicanos displaced from mainstream society.” This breeds places and spaces where cultural rites and rituals can be practiced without retribution. Our Lady of Visitation has become one of those havens. Today, three adult entertainment and a strip joint are part of the social environment, with an inability to rid the community of these moral nuisances. They may soon be asked to leave, especially if the tentacles of gentrification and its moral code have anything to do with it. The lenses of morality should also be placed over the eyelids of those seeking to change what is security for citizens that need a place to worship.
When the Church Loses Its Faith in the People
Roys intimated that he was a kid who served mass in Latin at the church. His memories are filled with how he met God here. The church has been one of the main venues to bring people together creating strong historical ties. Cultural celebrations remain of paramount importance to those that gather to pray. Mr. Roys still sees his compañeros once a year at the annual bazaar. Roys emphatically stated that “Toys didn’t mean anything then; it was the people.” Its’ collective spirit is strong as longtime neighbors organize, fighting back the powers whose vision includes cultural destruction.
Church officials argue that there are not enough priests to say mass. There may be some veracity to this as men unwilling to commit to the painstaking process of priesthood shy away from it. Parishioners organized a recruitment strategy, with priests that responded affirmatively. However, they have also been psychologically threatened. At one point in the community’s history, Penitentes ran the church in an unorthodox Catholicism. A morada used to be conducted annually; however, the community has lost this cultural and historical practice. I am sure that unpleasant names were attached to this practice, viewed by some as sacrilegious and/or full of brujeria. When the church is gone, the community will die a slow death. They will not go to Holy Trinity, a neighboring church. Roys stated, “We worship a Brown Mother not a White one transported from Europe.”
Maybe the banner of La Virgen will disappear just as the church will. Not only is the church being taken but the erasure of history will soon follow. I can attest to this as I was involved at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Denver, CO when the philosophy of the church whose mission as purportedly spiritual was used to hide La Virgen behind a wall. The father there was a Trumpite before our current president even dreamt about building a wall. This caused a mass exodus of Chicanos from the church.
Another irony is that community residents built the church from scratch. They can boastfully talk about a $250,000 surplus that can be accessed for upgrading the structure; money raised by the blood, sweat and tears of the parishioners. However, the archdiocese will not give permission for community residents to do this. Why not have it deteriorate and use this as an ample rationalization to get rid of it?
Crisis brings community together as do spiritual, cultural and psychological connections. The church in many Chicano communities is the glue that keeps residents inextricably tied to one together. The closure of the church will hurt the community and future generations. Los dueños de la iglesia are the people who spent their pittance to keep the church alive and well. Fifty year relationships stand to be destroyed. Chicanos may gravitate to other denominations that are in competition for the souls of the forgotten. Perhaps, intervention from a higher power is the only salvation for the church and its movement.
The social action that took place on Sunday is an attempt to get the attention of the archdiocese. How interesting that the dismantling of the church comes at time during Cinco de Mayo that Chicanos fought and defeated a mighty French army in Puebla, Puebla México and won. In a conversation with Sandy García, one of the organizers, she stated that the church has broken palabra during the intense meeting that took place last week. At times, la palabra is the only thing that working class and poor parishioners have to bargain with. Orders from the top seem to be another version of the Ten Commandments, etched in stone. The archbishop is scheduled to meet with a contingency of the social action group; however, pardon the pun, it seems that the lack of trust with the archdiocese has created grave doubt. Sometimes, faith has nothing to do with social change especially when economics trumps everything and those that preach faith don’t practice it fairly.
Ramón Del Castillo, Ph.D. s an Independent Journalist. © 5-5-2017 Ramón Del Castillo.