Historic Denver church vandalized, motive unclear

Holy Ghost graffiti Graffiti on wall of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Denver, Colorado/ Holy Ghost Catholic Church

A historic Catholic church in downtown Denver was tagged with graffiti on Monday evening, in a possible reference to the controversy over former Catholic-run schools for Indigenous in Canada.

The number “1323” was discovered painted in large red figures on an outer wall of Holy Ghost Catholic Church on Monday. The graffiti was cleaned off by Tuesday morning. 

Mark Haas, spokesman for the archdiocese of Denver, told CNA that the paint was water-based and washed off easily. He said the church’s pastor, Father Christoher Uhl, hopes to put the incident behind him and not draw any additional attention to the church. 

Both Uhl and Haas said they do not know of any reason why Holy Ghost would be targeted, other than its location in the heart of a major city’s downtown. Holy Ghost has operated a robust ministry to Denver’s homeless population for decades. 

The incident follows several weeks of Catholic churches in Canada being vandalized or discovered on fire. At least one incident of vandalism of St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan clearly referenced the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Catholic-run residential schools for Indigenous children. Vandals spray painted the words “We were children” and made red handprints in paint on the doors on Thursday, June 24. 

The number that was written on Holy Ghost church, “1323,” could have cited a June 25 article about the number of bodies that had been found in unmarked graves at the sites of former Canadian residential schools up to that point. However, the exact message remains unclear, and CNA could not confirm that the Denver vandalism was connected to the revelations in Canada. 

At the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered on the weekend of May 22 with ground-penetrating radar. It remains unclear when or how the children died.

Vandalism of churches has continued apace in Canada after a June 24 announcement that more than 750 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of a former residential school on Cowessess First Nation land in Saskatchewan. Leaders emphasized that the discovery was of unmarked graves, and not a “mass grave site.” 

On June 21, two Catholic churches on tribal lands in British Columbia burned down, and on June 26, two more Catholic churches on tribal lands burned down; police called the fires “suspicious.” On June 28, another Catholic church on tribal land in Alberta was discovered on fire; according to a preliminary investigation by police, that fire was believed to be deliberately set, the CBC reported.

On June 24 in Mississauga, Ontario, a church was spray painted with anti-Catholic rhetoric. The graffiti was removed shortly after it was discovered.  

And on June 26, a statue of St. Pope John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton, Alberta was vandalized with red spray paint. The vandal or vandals used the paint to make red handprints on the statue. 

Canada’s residential school system was set up by the federal government beginning in the 1870s, and was overseen by Catholics and members of Christian denominations. The Catholic Church, or Catholic religious orders, ran more than two-thirds of these schools. 

First Nations and other Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the schools as a means of forcible assimilation, to strip them of family and cultural ties. The last federally-run residential school closed in 1996.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that operated between 2008 and 2015, reported on the history of the school system and the abuses of Indigenous children. The commission found that at least 4,100 children died from “disease or accident” at the schools. 

The bishops of Saskatchewan last week expressed support for the “ongoing investigation” of gravesites at former residential schools, while noting that discoveries of unmarked graves “opens deep wounds and brings back terrible memories which re-traumatize.”

Canadian bishops have recently issued apologies for the Church’s role in the residential school system, including Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver. In 2014, bishops of the province of Alberta apologized to Indigenous communities.

A group of Canadian Indigenous leaders are planning a trip to the Vatican in December to request a formal papal apology for past abuses at Catholic-run residential schools. Some First Nations leaders recently called on Catholics to skip Sunday Mass in protest of abuses at the Catholic-run residential schools.

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