An Ecumenical 'First' in Colorado

Diocesan Press Service. January 22, 1974 [74013]

Salome Hansen, Editor, The Colorado Episcopalian

DENVER, Colo. -- An ecumenical "first" has been announced by three bishops of Colorado -- Archbishop James V. Casey, Bishop George R. Evans, both of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, and Bishop William C. Frey of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado.

Two congregations, one a Roman Catholic parish, the other an Episcopal mission, are building churches on the same site at Chatfield Ave. and Pierce St.

The houses of worship are of compatible design and will be some 50 feet apart. Already the congregations are sharing some Christian education classes and many social events. Later they hope to erect a third building, a functional, all-purpose area which they may use jointly.

Columbine Catholic Parish, whose pastor is the Rev. George L. Wiebel, and St. Gregory's Episcopal Mission, with its vicar the Rev. Jack C. Knight, will soon be next door neighbors in suburban Columbine Knolls-Hills.

Bishop Evans has called the venture "not only ecumenically, but also economically sound. " He considers it an idea so attractive that it has become "mutually contagious " among both Roman Catholics and Episcopalians of the area. "It's a step toward unity which has all kinds of possibilities," he added.

Bishop Frey said he knew of no other instance where Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have planned from the beginning to work so closely together as congregations.

" I am really excited about it, " said the Episcopal Bishop. " It is truly a practical approach to unity at the grass roots level. I am happy because it isn't just clergymen getting together with an idea. It involves the people themselves."

The ecumenical pioneering of the two congregations did not "just happen. " It is the product of many months of imaginative planning and work by three bishops, three priests and numerous devoted lay men and women.

It was February, 1972, when Father Knight first discussed the possibility of sharing a ministry between Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in the southwest corner of Denver's Metropolitan Area.

The parish of St. Timothy's, Littleton, had decided to sponsor a parochial mission in the fast-growing Columbine area. This is a large suburban-type and progressive congregation whose rector is the Rev. R. Michael Darrow. Father Knight, curate, was slated to become priest-in-charge of the new mission. Knowing there must be many Roman Catholics in the area, he called Bishop Evans to see if there was a possibility of collaborating in some ecumenical way.

The Roman Catholic bishop was very receptive to the idea. He began at once to organize a task force to study the situation. Father Wiebel, then pastor of Holy Family Parish, was made a member of that early committee.

In the meantime a residence was acquired for Father Knight, in the Columbine area. In April, 1972, St. Timothy's launched St. Gregory's Mission. The congregation met in the basement of the Knight's home, and has been worshiping there ever since.

By September, 1972, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver had got underway with the ecumenical experiment. The land on Chatfield Ave. had been purchased by the Archdiocese some time before. St. Timothy's Church took an option on three acres. Father Wiebel agreed to become pastor of the new Columbine Catholic Parish, and he and Father Knight became thoroughly involved in the project.

The Episcopal 75-family congregation continued to fill the Knight's basement, and the 400-family Roman Catholic parish worshiped in the Columbine Hills Elementary School.

While all of this was happening, members of the two congregations were getting acquainted. During the first half of 1972 Episcopal and Roman Catholic lay men and women drafted maps of the community, organized and carried out a door-to-door canvass of the area which is bounded by Wadsworth on the west, Platte Canyon Road on the east, Bowles on the north and Chatfield Dam on the south.

They did more than locate communicants. They organized social events to get church people of the area acquainted. And they took an opinion poll as they went from house to house. How did Roman Catholics feel about working so closely with Episcopalians? Did Episcopalians like the idea of so much sharing with their Roman Catholic neighbors?

Mr. and Mrs. Fred Pepek coordinated the survey team for the Roman Catholics and Mr. and Mrs. Byron Mays were in charge of the Episcopalian team.

It was a heartening response. Of the 475 families questioned, 90 percent favored the ecumenical experiment.

"And as people have grown to understand the idea their enthusiasm is growing," said Father Wiebel. "We are getting to know each other. Episcopalians have invited us to use their chapel in Father Knight's house numbers of times. When our new church is completed we will invite them to share it with us until their construction is finished. "

" Plans for the third building are not yet formalized, " said Father Knight. "We are investigating many different ways in which we might be able to use it together, such as joint youth programs and Christian education projects. We hope to house our office space there eventually, and share much of our office equipment, as well as kitchen, dining and recreational facilities.

" It is basically dollars which could postpone the erection of this building. Our local parishes must pay for the initial worship buildings before we will be able to proceed with this third and functional one which we hope to share, no matter how badly that building is needed. "

The multi-purpose worship space for Columbine Catholic Parish is now under construction and hopefully will be completed by June 1. According to Father Wiebel, " Everything is on castors so that we can keep space flexible. " Movable storage units will serve as dividers.

The Episcopalians have exercised the option and St. Gregory's Mission will begin its building soon. It too will be a multi-purpose worship area. The same architectural firm, Small and Spenst, is doing both churches, using identical exterior finish and compatible design.

The master plan now being developed by the two congregations includes not only the future shared functional building, but the development of this site which overlooks Chatfield Dam and has an unsurpassed view of the mountains.

"So far our so-called religious differences have given us little trouble. It has been such things as zoning which have taken time," Father Knight explained.

Father Wiebel agreed. "In fact we don't look for many difficulties between our two congregations. Such problems as scheduling we will take care of as they occur. "

"These two congregations have grown up together," said Bishop Evans. "Plans weren't laid out for them -- they developed their own plans," he concluded.

Bishop Frey summed it up: "One of the things God is doing in His world is creating working models in various parts of His world -- models of what a renewed and unified Church can look like. Our ecumenical experiment can become a model which people can watch and study, realizing that this kind of unity is not just theoretical, but that it is practical, and possible! "