On a Sunday in April, a hefty stone carving of a cluster of grapes fell from the front of the aging Catholic cathedral in North Capitol Hill.
“If somebody would have been under it, it would have killed them,” said the Rev. Ron Cattany.
The grapes didn’t injure anyone, but they did spur the church to take on $3.5 million in renovations to the outside of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Altogether, church leaders are asking for roughly $5.6 million to improve the aesthetics, security and safety of one of Denver’s most notable buildings. A fundraising campaign for the cathedral kicked off Oct. 22.
“We are going to be counting on the goodwill of the people of the Archdiocese and the goodwill of the people of Denver to donate to this because the cathedral is a historic landmark. It’s the iconic symbol of downtown here,” Cattany said.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built from 1902 to 1912 and has served some of Denver’s most notable residents like Molly Brown and John K. Mullen. The church has also attracted visits from Catholic heavyweights — and now saints — like Mother Cabrini, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. In the 1970s, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite the building’s prominence, the Vatican and the Archdiocese of Denver won’t be cutting any checks for renovations, and the church itself operates at an annual deficit of $481,000, Cattany said. That means the entire renovation project is expected to be funded by donations from parishioners and patrons.
As of Friday, about $268,500 had been donated or pledged to the project. That includes mortar and stone repair, carving replacements, new altars and shrines and other improvements.
The church has already spent $320,000 to move fencing around the building closer to the sidewalk on Colfax Avenue and Logan and Pennsylvania streets.
“The police said if we could move the fencing up to the sidewalk and add the fencing we’ve done along Logan, it would reduce the drug traffic in the area because basically, a drug dealer won’t go into a partially fenced area,” Cattany said.
Safety improvements started in 2015.
“In the spring of that year, our parochial vicar (pastor) had a gun pulled on him in confession,” Cattany said. “A year ago last summer, he was trapped in the confessional for 45 minutes with someone coming down from meth.”
During one week in May 2015, the church closed in between services, but church leaders quickly decided they should take security measures that would allow them to stay open instead of locking their doors in the face of threats.
In response to the incidents, glass windows were added to confessional booths, and a security guard was hired to patrol the area 40 hours a week. Part of the renovation project calls for installing cameras in the church to further boost security.
“The cathedral for 104 years has been serving the people of Denver and the Catholics of Colorado,” Cattany said. “People want their cathedral open, and we want it open.”