A Brief History of Mt. Olivet

by Monsignor Harley Schmitt, Cemetery Chaplain

September 25, 1892, a special Union Pacific train left the Denver Union Station carrying 1500 people to Mount Olivet Cemetery – located in rural Jefferson County between Denver and Golden – for the cemetery consecration.  Bishop Nicolas Matz officiated at the dedication and described Mt. Olivet as the “new City of the Dead.”

Since Memorial Day was made a national holiday, in 1971, to honor the memory of war heroes, nearly every year has seen large number of Catholics gathering at the cemetery to attend Memorial Day services not only for the war dead, but for all those interred at Mt. Olivet.

When Mt. Olivet was established by Bishop Matz, it consisted of 440 acres on the rolling plains west of Denver near the foothills of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.  Mt. Olivet was an isolated City of the Dead, and visitors often came by horse and buggy.

From the day of its dedication and for many years after, Union Pacific funeral trains made almost daily trips from Denver to Mt. Olivet.   The trains were met by teams of ponies or horses, hitched to funeral biers, to travel up the long drive into the cemetery proper.  It took almost an entire day for a funeral cortege to travel by train to Mt. Olivet and back to Denver.  Later interurban street cars served as funeral cars.

The tombstones in Mt. Olivet Cemetery tell a history that is yet to be recorded; for each person interred in Mt. Olivet played some role – famous or unrecognized – in the growth of what today is metropolitan Denver.

The first burial was that of Elizabeth Kelley of Annunciation Parish on July 5, 1892.  Today more than 150,000 are interred at Mt. Olivet.

Special plots embrace the remains of those who served our country in times of war.  Priests and Sisters who served Colorado also are interred in special sections.

“Standing guard” over the entire cemetery is the Gallagher Memorial Chapel.  In the walls of the pink granite chapel, Denver’s former bishops and archbishops are entombed.  A carillon on the chapel ticks off the hours of the day and night and calls out for prayers for those who are rest in Mt. Olivet.

Mt Olivet succeeded Mt. Calvary – the first Catholic cemetery in Denver, located at 900 York Street, which now is the Denver Botanic Gardens.  After Mt. Olivet became the principal Catholic cemetery, Mt. Calvary was closed.  Time and vandals soon took a heavy toll on the cemetery, rendering it a place of disgrace rather than the place of reverence first envisioned by Bishop Machebeuf and the first Catholics of Denver.

The land was sold by the Archdiocese of Denver in 1950 to the City of Denver with the provision that it would not be used for commercial purposes, and that the city would pay the expenses of reinterring the bodies from Mt. Calvary to Mt. Olivet.

In 1950, from June to September, the remains of more than 7000 persons were moved from Mt. Calvary to Mt. Olivet.  Extraordinary care was taken to ensure that the remains of each person were carefully idenitied and transferred ant the new burial spot was painstakingly marked.  Of the total dead at Mt. Calvary, 50 percent were infants or children.

An entire book could be written on the transferal of the bodies.  Amazing mementos were found when graves ere opened.  Several disinterred bodies were of men in full military uniform, including spurs and swords.  One grave contained several newspapers dating back to April 22, 1905; a copy of The Boston Post headlined the opening game of the American League between Philadelphia and Boston, in which Rub Waddell saved the day for Philadelphia.

Another astonishing tale from the men who worked on the project relates that when the grave of an Irish lass from Leadville was uncovered, the scent of rose petals filled the air.  There was great consternation that the body of a saint might have been disinterred.  Sanctity terrified all and created great problems for Church officials who had to verify or deny the saintliness.  Despite intensive research by The Denver Catholic Register, the Irish lass remains a mystery.

An examination of the record book of Mt. Olivet tells a graphic history of the times.  Causes of death entered in the late 1800s include “died of softening of the brain,” and “died of acute insanity,” and died of cramps.”

Other poignant entries include a mother and child “killed by Indians” August 26, 1868.  Six members of another family were killed in a snowslide March 10, 1884; 12 members of the family now lie together side by side in Mt. Olivet.

Some of the greatest orators of Denver preached at the Memorial Day Masses.  Orators like Msgr. William O’Ryan, Msgr. Hugh L. McMenamin, Msgr. Francis Walsh and Father E. J. Mannix delivered stirring sermons on the patriotism and the virtue of praying for the souls of the dead.

In one of his sermons at a Memorial Day Mass, Bishop Tihen reportedly urged those at the Mass to visit the cemetery often, to bring their picnic lunches and enjoy the quiet beauty as a park of inspiration.

It was Father Mannix who asked a question as valid today as when he voiced it: as the battle clouds of World War II were forming on the horizon, Father Mannix asked, “Have we kept faith with those who are buried here and whom we honor today?”

Mt. Olivet Cemetery General Information

The Mt. Olivet Cemetery site was a 440 acre farm purchased the in 1860’s by Bishop Joseph P. Machebeuf, Denver’s first resident bishop.  Bishop Machebeuf later donated the land to the Denver diocese.  Mt. Olivet Cemetery now includes 393 acres.

Mt. Olivet Cemetery was consecrated in 1892 by Bishop Nicholas Chrysostom Matz.  The cemetery, a self-sufficient entity of the Archdiocese of Denver, marked its centennial in 1992.

Mt. Olivet Cemetery grounds are open daily from sunup to sundown.

Every First Friday, the Eucharist is celebrated in the Chapel at Mt. Olivet for all persons interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

To date, more than 115,000 persons are interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Mt. Olivet Cemetery’s Gallagher Chapel entombs Denver’s former bishops and archbishops.

Mt. Olivet Cemetery features outdoor Stations fo the Cross.

Special sections at Mt. Olivet Cemetery include the following: Priests’ Section, Sister’ Section, Veterans’ Section, Pioneers’ Section, Calvary Section and Infant Section.

The St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Memorial bears witness to the saint’s work in Colorado at the former orphanage that now is the Mother Cabrini Shrine.  Other shrines honor the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and St. Michael the Archangel.