This is the new face of the Catholic Church.
Adam is smiling from ear to ear as he takes in the Colorado sunshine through a dark pair of Ray Ban sunglasses. His traditional Hispanic family spent all morning making hand-rolled tamales two blocks away in his parents’ home. It’s his 28th birthday, and he’s wandered into St. Dominic’s third annual Oktoberfest celebration in Denver’s Highland community.
“I can’t believe how welcoming everyone is here,” he says.
Adam says he was raised Catholic, but fell away from the Church for many years. He says Pope Francis has changed the way he thinks about Catholicism, and the Oktoberfest, organized and hosted by the Dominicans, exemplifies that repackaged message of acceptance and genuine compassion.
“If I’m going to come back to any church, it’ll be one like this,” he says.
On the stage, Isabella Daily channels Joanie Mitchell through her acoustic guitar. The 13-year old is a parishioner at St. Dominic’s and sings in the choir. But her next door neighbor—who is not a parishioner—has also come out in support along with her two young children. In fact, many of the Oktoberfest attendees walked in from the surrounding Highland neighborhood and are experiencing the parish—and the Dominicans— for the first time.
Oktoberfest is a vibrant bustling scene of nearly 1,500 people, mostly local men and women, many of whom have begun families of their own. One attendee is holding his young daughter, her face painted by volunteers in the Kids Zone. As she smiles shyly, her father says he lives down the street, but isn’t a parishioner. However, his wife recently joined the Highland Neighborhood Commission, so they wanted to come and see what St. Dominic’s was about, as its role in the community continues to evolve along with its 126-year history there.
What they, and everyone else, encounter is a very strong Dominican presence. The crowd is flecked with white habits, from 75-year-old Br. Jordan Coonen, O.P. selling his hand-crafted Catholic artwork to 23-year-old Br. Philip Catalanotto, O.P., taking photos in his role as Novice class chronicler. In total, six friars work at St. Dominic’s Parish, while Novice Master, Fr. Bob Keller, O.P., guides six additional young men in their first year of formation. At some point throughout the day, all 12 men are present at Oktoberfest, and at Mass the following day to meet and greet lifelong parishioners and newcomers alike. The number of friars on hand locally ranks Denver third in the Central Province only behind the Studentate in St. Louis, Missouri and the St. Pius V assisted living center in Chicago, Illinois.
St. Dominic’s Parochial Vicar, Fr. Luke Barder, O.P. spends most of his time talking with people he doesn’t know and giving tours of the historic church, while 29-year-old Elizabeth Frels, and the other volunteers, spend the day explaining who the men in the white habits are to people who don’t know the friars. She and her husband, Jason, moved to the area three years ago. She wasn’t Catholic, and neither she nor her husband had ever met the Dominicans. This year, Fr. Luke says the community festival would not have been possible without people like them.
“We have a team of young adults who are very active parishioners and have been working on this since March,” he says. “They each brought their own experience and took on the planning and organizing themselves.”
As the night winds down, Elizabeth is dancing to a song played by The Love Electric, and Jason is helping dismantle a canopy nearby. Standing at 6’5″, he’s the only of the many young adult volunteers who doesn’t need a ladder.
His voice raspy from greeting visitors all day, Fr. Luke credits the Young Adults Committee for sustaining and growing the vision started by the stalwart parishioners and Br. Vincent Davila, O.P. during his pastoral year at St. Dominic’s in 2013. Only 32-years old himself, Fr. Luke tells the crowd how happy he is to see so many new and young faces. He thanks the local craft beer and food vendors for participating, and local sponsors like the Highlands Animal Clinic for making the event a success. As they pack up their supplies, only two of the five breweries have any beer left to serve. Diebolt Brewing runs out twice and has to have more delivered. Joyride Brewing Company taps out all four of its kegs, and provides the Oktoberfest branded glass steins for attendees. Prosit Fine Beers and Sausage serves the last of its bratwurst and German pretzels, though its owner admits, “It’s a good problem to have.” Just a few hours after the event, Brewshine BBQ and Taphouse (which provides pulled pork and pulled chicken), just a block away, takes last call earlier than expected for a Saturday night. A bartender tells customers, “St. Dominic’s Oktoberfest tapped us out.”
Following the lead of Pope Francis, Fr. Luke encourages inactive Catholics to come back to Mass and non-Catholics to come and see what St. Dominic’s is all about. Oktoberfest itself, he reminds the crowd, is about community, above all. In closing, he says everyone is welcome at the parish. In the faces of the young people and those renewing the Highland neighborhood, somehow this 800-year old Order of Preachers and its 126-year old parish manage to remain as relevant as ever.