Motherly Magnanimity One Mile High

Saint Mother Frances Cabrini prayed here. So did “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the “unsinkable” Molly Brown and, during World Youth Day 1993, Pope John Paul II.

They were drawn here for different reasons, but it seems safe to say that all were moved by the sight of this French Gothic Revival fortress in the heart of downtown Denver, just three blocks from the gold-domed Colorado Capitol.

It's the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the first U.S. church the Holy Father designated a minor basilica (in 1979). What a fitting place it will be to observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary come Dec. 8, a holy day of obligation.

Having visited more than once, I can attest to the edifice's worthiness to bear the title of minor basilica — which is bestowed on churches outside of Rome whose presence is considered vital to the functioning of the Catholic Church.

Outside, the twin 210-foot stone spires command attention even from disinterested passers-by. Fifteen bells, visible from the open Gothic windows of the east tower, form one of the most resonant chime systems in the country.

Topped with a green ceramic-tile roof, the exterior was built to last: an Indiana Bedford limestone superstructure and a foundation of granite quarried from Gunnison, Colo. Sculpted brass doors commemorate the 1993 papal Mass.

Singing Walls

Stepping inside during the day, you'll find the nave bathed in light streaming in through some 75 stained-glass windows. Dating to 1912, these were hand-crafted at the Royal Bavarian Art Institute, a Munich studio that would later be destroyed in World War II. The colorful windows contrast with the white marble of the altar, statuary and bishop's chair imported from Carrara, Italy, the famed quarry Michelangelo favored.

Marble from Marble, Colo., forms the bases of the white Corinthian columns and is used in other elements in the vestibules, balustrades and stairs. The Stations of the Cross are ivory.

The cathedral parish began in 1860, at a different location, with a humble structure dedicated to the Blessed Mother. It was known simply as St. Mary's. When its founder, Father Joseph Machebeuf, became Colorado bishop, he changed its name to Immaculate Conception.

The cathedral building was envisioned by Bishop Nicholas Matz, who succeeded Bishop Machebeuf. Though the cornerstone was laid in 1906 in its current and third location, it was not dedicated as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception until Oct. 27, 1912.

The cathedral has a storied legacy as a musical powerhouse. This was established by Msgr. Joseph Bosetti, its first choir director, an Italian known as a Western musical pioneer. A prominent choir loft contains the original Kimball 3,000-pipe organ. According to Dr. Horst Bucholz, the current music director, the cathedral has some of the nation's best acoustics for choral and organ music. Traditional hymns are featured at the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, as well as in the annual cathedral-concert series. The 6:30 p.m. young-adult Mass on Sunday is the best attended of all Masses here and features a contemporary choir.

Archbishop Charles Chaput is a frequent celebrant.

“For nearly a century, our cathedral has been a sign of Christ's presence against the backdrop of the Rockies,” he has said. “As the mother church of our archdiocese, it belongs to all Catholics in northern Colorado, and I hope more and more Coloradans and visitors rediscover its beauty in the coming months through personal visits and prayer.”

Worth Traveling For

The inner-city parish, which comfortably seats 900 people, has long been home to a broad range of parishioners, from the rich and famous to the poor and destitute.

It is such a compelling place that most of its 800 registered families do not even live in its boundaries. Mary Ellen Lederman, parish administrator, says that number is deceptive since many more people are in unofficial regular attendance — a telling indicator of just how strong a draw the cathedral remains.

Father Philip Meredith, the cathedral rector and a Colorado native, extends a welcome to all to “come and avail yourself of one of the crown jewels of the Queen City of the Plains.”

Dr. Thomas Noel, a University of Colorado history professor and an author known locally as “Dr. Colorado,” has long promoted the cathedral as a regional and national landmark. In his 1989 book Colorado Catholicism, he called the cathedral the “cornerstone” of the Catholic faith in the state.

Webster's defines “corner-stone” as “the basic, essential or most important part; foundation.” Dr. Colorado knows whereof he speaks.

Mary Manley writes from Littleton, Colorado.