Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

Concluding my brief series of posts on my recent trip to Denver, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to two very different, but very beautiful buildings there, which told me a great deal about the people of that city.

The reader will recall that I was out in Colorado for a wedding, which took place at Holy Ghost Church in downtown Denver on Saturday night.  Because it was an evening event and I was serving as an usher, there was not a great deal of time nor any daylight available for me to wander around the church and pick up on the subtle details of the architecture, which this building has in spades.  I was told by those who had been there during the day that because the windows are not very large, there was not much more I could have seen, but nevertheless any building looks different depending on when you visit.  The play of darkness and light changes as the hours progress.

The present Holy Ghost Church was built between 1923-1943, with the long period of construction explained by the bane of many large and sumptuously decorated churches, insufficient funding.  It is an idiosyncratic mixture of both early Italian Renaissance and Spanish Plateresque elements, though the net effect put me more in mind of something Tolkien might have imagined, rather than the hill towns of Tuscany or the plains of Castile.  The mixture of different shades of beige and pink marble is very pleasing, and particularly for an evening wedding there was a glimmer and shine about the sanctuary which added to the formality of the occasion.

If I was to pick a single notable feature of the building to draw the visitor’s attention to however, it would be the arcade located in the narthex.  Two rows of short columns flank the main doors which give entrance to the nave, so that even before one enters and has to bless oneself, the high altar with its huge monstrance can be seen.  The arcade itself is very beautifully proportioned, but what I found particularly unusual was a series of geometrically carved oak panels between them, which are set into a kind of soffit hidden above the arcade.

These panels can be pulled down almost like overhead garage doors, to close the spaces between the columns.  Presumably these were designed for the environmental purpose of helping to keep out the chill of winter from the nave.  However for the wedding they worked perfectly as a kind of screen, to let people know that the bride and her attendants had arrived, since the panels were pulled down to keep the ladies of the wedding party hidden until that moment when the doors into the nave were opened and the procession began.

If Holy Ghost is a somewhat dark building referencing the 15th-16th centuries in Italy and Spain, Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a structure completely flooded with light, recalling the glories of 13th-14th century architecture in France.  Built between 1902-1911 and just a block away from the Colorado State Capitol, this is a very grand church, tall and wide but not particularly deep, put up in a remarkably speedy period of time for a prosperous and growing city.  Unlike Holy Ghost, the Cathedral obviously suffered a bit at the hands of the tambourine and felt banner crowd after Vatican II,  but the damage is not completely horrid nor ultimately irreparable.

The visitor is struck by two distinct yet related elements of the Cathedral upon entering the nave.  The first is the sense of height, particularly at the crossing, which is only accentuated by the many, enormously tall stained-glass windows from Munich that surround the space.  Second, the interior is almost blindingly white stone and marble, with very little color employed in either the architecture itself or in the furnishings and statuary.  Even the aforementioned windows, while featuring the rich colors typical of the Neo-Gothic movement in the figures themselves, are dominated by white stained glass forming the framework for the scenes.  It is surely appropriate for the Cathedral of the Mile High City to be not only a lofty structure, but one which calls to mind the snow-covered Rockies.

I attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral the morning after the wedding with several friends, both fellow wedding guests and some Denver tweeps (i.e. Twitter followers, for those of you not using Twitter) whom I had known for years but was finally able to meet for the first time.  Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the celebrant and yes, I got to kiss his ring and chat with him briefly after mass.  However the thing I will remember most about this church was something rather simple.

In a corner over to the right of the sanctuary in the Cathedral hangs a reproduction of the famous Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so dear to the late Blessed Pope John Paul II.  The reader may recall that JPII came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, and during his stay celebrated mass at the Cathedral.  Hence the presence of a rather attractive and dynamic statue of him in the grounds of the Cathedral, and also of this icon inside the church itself.  The unexpected success of the Denver WYD had a tremendous impact on many young Catholics, particularly in this country, and one cannot underestimate its lasting influence on those collectively known as the “JPII Generation“, i.e., those of us who grew up knowing no other pope than John Paul II due to the length of his pontificate.

I left some flowers before the icon of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, and took a moment to pray for a couple of special intentions, as well as to reflect briefly on my trip to Denver – a place which in all honesty I had never planned to visit in my life.  Certainly now, following this experience, I would not say no to a return visit sometime, so that I could hang out with Greg and Jennifer Willits a bit longer, for example.  And a repeat stay at the Brown Palace Hotel would certainly be most welcome.

On a spiritual level, it was good to be able to visit these two very different, but very beautiful churches in the Mile High City, and see how much the Catholic community there cares about the Real Presence of Our Lord.  Both in the darkness of Holy Ghost Church, with its enormous gilded monstrance above the high altar, and in the light of Denver’s Cathedral, its high altar surrounded by gleaming white marble, candles, and flowers, the Divine was there, waiting for us to visit Him.  That Presence remains regardless of the contrast between darkness and light paralleled in our own lives, where just as in these two buildings, Christ is there in our dark moments and in our bright ones as well.

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Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa,
Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

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3 thoughts on “Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

  1. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado – where there aren’t many Catholics – but where the churches range from the formal (my home parish of St. Peter’s in Gunnison, Colorado) to ones which embrace God’s beautiful mountains (Queen of All Saints in Crested Butte, Colorado) with it’s view of the mountains. My husband and I take great delight in visiting Catholic Churches in the places we visit — and even here in Omaha, NE where there is a Catholic Church on practically every corner. They all speak of the heritage of those who built it and those who now maintain it. One of our favorite spots which I recommend to anyone traveling through Nebraska is Holy Family Shrine outside of Gretna, Nebraska. It is an all glass building with wood timbers to represent sheaves of wheat. You walk in through a nave which is underground and then walk “out of the tomb” to the Church which has the running baptismal waters running along the sides within the church. It is truly a beautiful experience.

    I hope you get to visit more of these spiritual places – every one that I have visited has a special place in my heart.

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