Sister seeks protection for old Loretto Heights College cemetery where 62 nuns are buried

Year by year, the team of guardians of the 62 Sisters of Loretto buried at the Colorado Heights University campus in southwest Denver dwindles.

That’s why there is a sense of urgency to Sister Mary Nelle Gage’s quest to seek permanent protection and care for the burial site. It’s there that the remains of three founders of the old Loretto Heights Academy — which started as a Catholic high school for girls in 1888 — now rest.

She and others worry that plans to sell the 76-acre Colorado Heights campus not only will endanger the institution’s historic chapel and administration building but also the cemetery.

Colorado Heights officials have assured Sister Gage that a sale would be contingent on allowing both the historic structures and the cemetery to remain. In fact, Colorado Heights officials have offered to donate the cemetery to the Sisters of Loretto. However, she wants to ensure there’s a permanent maintenance arrangement for the cemetery as well as buffers around the site, which covers less than 1 acre.

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Colorado Heights College campus dates back over 100 years in the southwest metro area on July 3, 2017 in Denver.

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  • There are fewer than 150 Sisters of Loretto, she said, and nearly all are age 70 or older.

    “We won’t be able to look over the cemetery for much longer,” said Sister Gage, 73. “We need something in perpetuity, something that will allow those whose lives were spent in loving prayer and service to Loretto can remain in peace.”

    Some of the women’s bodies were buried in the tidy, unadorned cemetery more than 100 years ago. They include teachers, college instructors, professors and administrators who fueled Loretto Heights Academy and later Loretto Heights College.

    Also interred there is Mother Pancratia Bonfils, a relative of Frederick Bonfils, early co-owner of The Denver Post. Mother Bonfils chose the site for Loretto Heights and supervised construction of the administration building and chapel.

    No potential buyers have been identified for the Colorado Heights campus, which rests atop Sheridan Hill.

    Colorado Heights is part of Japan-based Teikyo University group, which bought the campus in 1989. As many as 500 students were enrolled at the university in November, when closure plans were announced.

    A combination of factors led to the decision to close the campus, including a move by the U.S. Department of Education to deny recognition of the accrediting authority of the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools. That group accredits Colorado Heights’ academic progress.

    Low enrollment also played a factor in the school’s demise.

    Neighbors worry a new owner will build high-density housing that will add traffic congestion. Several area residents gathered at a meeting late last week and offered suggestions for repurposing the property, including turning it into a recreation center, an arts complex or an educational annex.

    Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn told the residents the parcel is zoned for condo-style development and up to 60 percent of the land can be used for housing.

    But any move by a new buyer to tear down or alter the site’s historic buildings would be met with quick, official resistance, Flynn said. That includes immediately filing for a historic landmark status for the targeted structures.

    He also assured Gage, who for decades worked to help refugees from the Vietnam War, that the cemetery would not be disturbed by any development.

    “I feel certain that no one will have to dig up your predecessors,” Flynn said. “I don’t want to spend any more time in purgatory.”

    The cemetery at Colorado Heights University ...

    Monte Whaley, The Denver Post

    The cemetery at Colorado Heights University Thursday night, June 29, 2017. Sixty-two nuns are buried there, some graves were dug as far back as 100 years ago.

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