The bodies of 62 nuns buried in a 123-year-old cemetery at the former Loretto Heights campus in southwest Denver will be exhumed and relocated as the former Catholic school campus is redeveloped into new housing and business space.
The Sisters of Loretto made the decision to close the cemetery, which opened in late 1898 and received burials until 1969, and move the sisters’ bodies to Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery, where nearly two dozen other sisters are already buried, according to a February letter from the group’s president, Barbara Nicholas, to developer Westside Investment Partners, which had hoped to keep the cemetery in place.
The Sisters of Loretto had been concerned about long-term maintenance and care at the cemetery as early as 2017, before the property was sold to Westside, and were assured then by officials that the site’s historic features would be preserved.
But subsequent conversations with experts, officials, community members and others prompted the Sisters of Loretto to chose to close the site, the letter said.
“The valued legacy of the campus and the respect for the 62 Sisters buried in the cemetery were continuously and consistently expressed,” Nichols wrote in the letter. “We have been inspired and are grateful.”
The Sisters did not return a request for comment Thursday.
Work to empty the cemetery is expected to start June 20, and it is not known exactly how long the process will take, said Mark Witkiewicz, principal at Westside. The company had hoped to keep the cemetery in place and worked the site into the redevelopment plans after hearing from community members about their desire to preserve the history of Loretto Heights, he said.
“The long and short of it is we are absolutely heartbroken over it,” he said of the decision to move the bodies. The area will instead be turned into a memorial park, Witkiewicz said.
Denver city Councilman Kevin Flynn, who represents the area, said in an email Thursday that he too was disappointed with the Sisters’ decision.
“My fear is that with the mortal remains taken away…the legacy of these brave women will be forgotten in a generation while no one visits their graves in the vast Mount Olivet Cemetery,” he said. “With their graves on the campus, everyone who visits the newly thriving community there would have a stronger connection to their work.”
Those buried in the cemetery include the teachers, college instructors, professors and administrators who fueled Loretto Heights Academy, and later Loretto Heights College.
In her letter, Nicholas said that the spirit of those women would remain with Loretto Heights regardless of where they are physically buried.
“Since all of the burials in the Loretto Heights cemetery took place from the late 1890s through 1969, we believe that some of their human remains are joined with that sacred land,” Nicholas wrote. “As a place where their lives were spent in faithful service, their spirits remain. Their spirits and the legacy of the college will continue to be the foundation for the next great chapter of Loretto Heights.”
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