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Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1894)

“Seated in a comfortable carriage of the Santa Fe Railway, my glance swept across those immense plains which, around Denver, are dotted with the cottages of our Italian agriculturalists,” reported Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Italian-born foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint, she first came to Denver as a missionary in 1902.

Touring Colorado, Mother Cabrini found that: here the hardest work is reserved for the Italian worker. There are few who regard him with a sympathetic eye, who care for him or remember that he has a heart and soul: they merely look upon him as an ingenious machine for work. . . . I saw these dear fellows of ours engaged on construction of railways in the most intricate mountain gorges.

Mother Cabrini further lamented that Colorado’s many Italian miners spent most of their waking lives underground, “until old age and incapacity creep over them, or . . . a landslide or explosion or an accident of some kind ends the life of the poor worker, who does not even need a grave, being buried in the one in which he has lived all his life.”

At the request of Bishop Matz, Mother Cabrini came to Colorado to bring “the holy joys” to “our poor emigrants.” In North Denver’s “Little Italy,” Mother Cabrini joined a handsome young priest who made building a parish for his countrymen his life’s work–Mariano Felice Lepore. It was Father Lepore who had first invited Mother Cabrini to Colorado, after hearing of her miraculous ability to do God’s work with meager resources.

Initially, Italians had settled in the South Platte River bottoms where they found cheap rent, good soil, and water for their vegetable patches. As these hard-working people prospered, they moved up to North Denver and began attending St. Patrick Church, a heavily Irish parish. Italians wanted their own national parish, and the roots were planted in 1891 with the arrival of Father Lepore and the founding of the Mt. Carmel Society by Michael Notary, a leading merchant and real estate man, who also spearheaded the campaign to make Colorado the first state to declare Columbus Day a legal holiday.

Father Lepore became a champion of the poor Italian immigrants, who were mocked as WOPS (without passports), and founded a newspaper, La Nazione, to advance their cause. Father Lepore and the Mt. Carmel Society purchased seven lots, where, on Palm Sunday, March 18, 1894, Bishop Matz dedicated the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a small frame church.

A fire, possibly arson, destroyed this little church, according to The Denver Times of August 17, 1898, which reported that the blaze left all of Little Italy mourning, “Santo Rocco mio; Madonna mia; disgrazia.” The Mt. Carmel Society immediately began planning a grand new church. A rival Italian group, the St. Rocco Society, also entered what became a bitter race to construct a new Italian national church. Bishop Matz, caught in the middle of another of the lively ethnic squabbles of the early Denver Church, refused to consecrate the Chapel of Saint Rocco or send a priest there.

Father Lepore, who had helped lay the cornerstone in 1899, was not there to see the dedication of the 109-by-fifty-nine-foot Romanesque church, which he had worked so hard to complete. On November 18, 1903, the thirty-five-year-old priest was fatally shot under still mysterious circumstances. His assassin, a laborer named Guieseppe Sarvice, was killed at the same time.

For the dedication, a procession of hundreds of singing, flag-waving, flower-carrying Italians led Bishop Matz up Navajo Street on December 18, 1904, a bright, sunny “Italian” day. Bishop Matz followed the suggestion of Mother Cabrini and invited the Servite fathers to tend the new church. The Servites, an Italian-American order based in Chicago, sent Thomas M. Moreschini, OSM to guide the parish. Father Moreschini, with the help of Mother Cabrini, set about uniting the fractious Italian community. He achieved a reconciliation with the St. Rocco Society and bought their chapel at 3601 Osage as a parish school.

Mother Cabrini, who had set up a grade school in the fall of 1902 in the home of Michael Notary, moved her flock of children and four nuns to the new school with relief. In the Notary house at 3357 Navajo Street, the first Mt. Carmel School had overflowed with students. For lack of tablets and blackboards, Mother Cabrini’s teaching nuns had students blow on chilled window panes and use their fingers in the condensation to
do their lessons.

Besides using the Milnew arithmetic, Lawlor history, Atwood geography, Benziger Brothers Bible history, and the Baltimore Catechism, Mother Cabrini and her sisters used Columbus readers and Mother Tongue English textbooks to teach first and second-generation immigrant children how to use English properly. Although the grateful parish could not afford to pay the nuns regular salaries, they held monthly food showers to assure that the teachers at least ate well.

Father Moreschini, Mother Cabrini, and Frank Damascio, a prominent Denver contractor and parish member who was the architect of the church, set about making it an elegant house of the Lord. Marble statues were brought from Italy and fine Italian frescoes painted on the ceiling and walls. The exterior was transformed into one of Denver’s finest examples of “Roman” architecture with its twin, four-sided copper domes and a 1,000-pound bell that the parish proudly baptized “Maria del Carmelina.” Former Denver councilman Ernie Marranzino, whose family has lived in the house behind the church since the 1890s, calls Maria the “heartbeat” of North Denver: “That bell regulates life here the way church bells did in the old country.”

When Father Moreschini was transferred to Chicago, he was replaced by his assistant, Julius M. Piccoli, OSM. Father Piccoli put the parish in financial order. “He ate only bread and onions,” noted Mt. Carmel’s seventy-fifth-anniversary history, “because he was sacrificing that much for the poor Italians of the parish.” Father Piccoli also helped make Mt. Carmel the hub of North Denver’s “Little Italy.” By 1930, the parish served a population of almost 3,000 Italians, who had become the Mile High City’s fourth largest foreign-born group.

The parish’s grandest festival is the Feast of St. Rocco on August 16. Parishioners carry the statue of the saint and his little dog through the streets of North Denver, celebrating gloriously afterwards with music, food, and a carnival.

After Father Piccoli died in 1938, he was succeeded by Gaetano M. Del Brusco (1938-1946), Tom LoCascio (1946-1958), Alphonse Mattucci (1958-1966), Robert Volk (1966-1968), Hugh M. Moffett (1968-1974), Gabriel M. Weber (1974-1977), Donald Duplessis (1977-1978), Joseph M. Carbone (1978-1988), and Gabriel M. Ramacciotti. These Servite fathers transformed the struggling parish they adopted in 1904 into one of the staunchest bulwarks of the archdiocese.

In the fall of 1926, the Servite Sisters of Omaha replaced the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart at the grade school. A large, modern, $400,000 Mt. Carmel High School at 3600 Zuni Street was dedicated on September 23, 1951, by Archbishop Vehr. Three years later, the thriving parish built a new grade school at West 36th Avenue and Pecos Street.

After World War II, Denver’s flourishing Italian community spread out into the north metro suburbs in Adams, Boulder, and Jefferson counties. Servite priests established new Italian-oriented parishes, continuing the work begun at Mt. Carmel, at Assumption Church in Welby, Our Lady Mother of the Church in Commerce City, and Holy Trinity Church and School in Westminster. As many Italian families moved into these new parishes, enrollments dropped at both Mt. Carmel High School and Grade School. Both were closed in 1968, and the grade school was sold to the City and County of Denver to become the Northside Community Center.

Father Joseph Carbone, a scion of the pioneer family famous for their bakery, sausage shop, and pizza palace, was modest about his role as pastor at Mt. Carmel. “I never got into making dough,” he quipped during a 1985 interview. “And I haven’t gone very far in life. I was born across the street from this church.” But Father Carbone and Denver’s Italian community have come a long way from the days when Italian immigrants were among the city’s poorest people, squatting in the Platte River bottoms and peddling vegetables. They worked hard, prospered, and built Mt. Carmel, whose colorful history and architecture led to its designation by both the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission and the National Register of Historic Places.

Backsides of churches are a good clue to the love and craftsmanship invested in them. The rear of Mt. Carmel is fine stone masonry work with an ancient red brick chimney carrying a blonde brick cross. Only alley people will see this, but all of North Denver and downtown can appreciate the twin front spires, with their copper domes and white crosses, restored in 1986 to shimmer above Denver’s “Little Italy.”

History of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The relationship between Our Lady and Mount Carmel is geographical and biblical. Mount Carmel is about 20 miles from Nazareth and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. The Mount is considered a symbol of blessing and beauty for its rich vegetation and beauty. Scripture tells that Elijah, the prophet, prayed to God on this Mount for rain during a drought and God answered his prayers with abundant rain and new life. The clouds that rose from the sea that brought the rain subsequently became a symbol for Mary and eventually developed into the title Star of the Sea.

Mount Carmel eventually attracted an order of hermits, and from the 12th century on it served as a residence to a Latin community of hermits called the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. A religious order that followed in the footsteps of Mary, the Order of Carmel considers itself totally Marian, a privilege that it claims to have received from the Blessed Virgin Mary, herself, and which is made visible through the brown scapular.

The Mount Carmel brown scapular is the oldest among eight scapulars to be approved by the Church that have a Marian character. The brown scapular owes its origin and existence to Saint Simon Stock who received a large brown scapular from Our Lady in a vision on July 16, 1251. A scapular is actually the sleeveless outer garment of a monk’s habit that falls from the shoulders. Its significance implies that one is clothed with Mary’s attitudes and devotion to Christ.

Prayer to Our Lady of Mount Carmel:

O most beautiful flower of Mt. Carmel, fruitful vine, splendor of heaven, blessed mother of the Son of God, immaculate virgin, assist us in our necessity. O star of the sea, help us and show us the way. Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who turn to you.

Holy Spirit, you who solve all problems, light all roads, so that we can attain our goal. You who gave us the diving gift to forgive and forget all evil against us, and who are with us in all instances in our lives, thank you for all things, as you confirm once again that we are never to be separated from you in eternal glory. AMEN