In 1870, Denver’s large population of German immigrants petitioned Bishop Machebeuf for their own priest. In 1878, the bishop established Denver’s second Catholic parish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. This new parish served the neighborhoods of Auraria and Southwest Denver. In 1887, two Franciscans, Francis Koch, O.F.M. (Order of Friars Minor), and Venatius Eder, O.F.M., responded to Bishop Machebeuf ’s request and came to Denver from Patterson, New Jersey, to found a Franciscan House at St. Elizabeth’s. In 1890, Fr. Koch built a $20,000, two-story brick school and in 1891, he built an $18,000 rectory.
As the German national church for the entire city, St. Elizabeth’s became so overcrowded that the old building was torn down to construct a new one in 1898. This $69,000 Romanesque church, designed by Father Adrian, OSF, was built of rusticated rhyolite (lava stone) from Castle Rock, CO, quarries. St. Elizabeth’s long tradition of caring for the poor and hungry began early with Fr. Koch and the Franciscan sisters at St. Elizabeth’s. The Franciscan sisters who opened St. Elizabeth Grade School in September 1890, regularly collected money and food for themselves and the poor. When Fr. Leo Heinrichs, O.F.M., became pastor of St. Elizabeth’s on September 23rd, 1907, Denver’s poor learned they had a friend in the pastor of St. Elizabeth’s, and every morning a line formed at the friary gate. Fr. Madden, the pastor at St. Elizabeth’s in the late 1970s, carried on the tradition of feeding the hungry by organizing a bologna sandwich breadline behind the church.
Thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Franciscans and the generosity of Colorado’s German Catholics, St. Elizabeth’s became the first church in the diocese to retire its debt. This allowed the church to be consecrated on June 8, 1902, by Bishop Matz. The candle holders on the interior sides of the church commemorate this feat. Next to the church is the friary, built in 1936 by the May Bonfils Trust. Designed by Jacques Benedict, the friary is decorated by a colonnade, Stations of the Cross, and a shrine to St. Francis.
In the 1960’s, after the Second Vatican Council introduced sweeping changes in catholic liturgy, the church interior was completely renovated to its present form in 1968. The beautiful stained glass windows were installed at that time.
In 1973, the Auraria Urban Renewal project proponents began demolishing the Auraria neighborhood. Preservationists ensured St. Elizabeth’s was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. The Auraria Higher Education Center campus replaced the Auraria neighborhood and St. Elizabeth’s became the campus chapel. After more than a century of service to Colorado, the O.F.M. Franciscans left in 1983, turning the care of the parish over to the Capuchins, who ministered to the church’s needs until 1992. Between 1992 and 2003, the parish was intermittently administered by the archdiocese of Denver as well as the Vincentians and the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The rectory at St. Elizabeth’s is now the home of the Marian Community of Reconciliation. In 2003, the parish of St. Elizabeth of Hungary became a community composed of both Roman and Byzantine Rites under the authority of the Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Denver. One of the unique dimensions of this parish is that it embraces two different liturgical traditions and communities within its one parish family- Roman and Russian Byzantine. Pope John Paul II wrote in the document Lumen Orientalis (Light from the East), that the\ Catholic Church “breathes with two lungs, East and West.” St. Elizabeth of Hungary (and SS Cyril and Methodius Russian Byzantine Catholic Community) is one of the few places in the country, and even in the world, where the Christian West and the Christian East can encounter and enrich one another in an ongoing way within the bonds of communion. This communion continues to be experienced today.