When the Loretto Heights campus in southwest Denver was sold to developers three years ago, the Sisters of Loretto were faced with the difficult decision to relocate the remains of 62 nuns whose bodies were interred on the property.
But all rescues — whether from a fire, flood or other precarious situation — have unanticipated circumstances, noted Gary Schaaf, executive director of the Archdiocese of Denver.
“We found ourselves in a position with an unexpected connection and commitment to this cemetery, so we’re going to take them to a place we can keep them safe,” Schaaf said. “That’s why we’ve dubbed this ‘Operation Sacred Rescue.’”
The nuns buried at Loretto Heights belonged to a congregation devoted to service and justice through education that still operates today. They’ll join 22 of their contemporaries already buried at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Wheat Ridge.
Called in by caretakers to lead the disinterment was Michala Stock, Ph.D., assistant professor of Anthropology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and director of the school’s Human Identification Laboratory. Stock recruited current MSU Denver students and alumni to join faculty and students from other area colleges in taking part in a one-of-a-kind field experience.
“It’s an exercise in reverence and service to a community, as well as the opportunity for students to put their academic preparation into action,” she said.
PHOTOS: Local anthropologists exhume buried Loretto Sisters
It’s a painstaking and delicate process to honor the deceased, she added. A backhoe operator initially excavates the graves to a specific depth, at which point students begin hand-shoveling the soil. Using their archaeological training, they mark the edges of the caskets and carefully remove the lids.
After determining the state and arrangement of the remains, the team delicately places the bones within a container, over which a cloth is respectfully draped, for transit. Remaining soil is sifted through a grater to ensure that nothing is left behind, with accompanying artifacts stored in a corresponding container.
As a former FBI agent, Schaaf has worked with forensic anthropologists and archaeologists on cold-case homicides and understands the importance of attention to detail.
“I don’t believe you can assemble a more professional or reverent team than what we have here,” he said. “They’re the Navy SEALs of this kind of thing.”
Burial dates range from the late 1800s through 1969, so the contents of each gravesite can vary substantially given their proximity to one another.
“A couple of feet can entirely change the preservation situation,” said MSU Denver senior Caitlin Calvert, who is double-majoring in History and Archaeology. “The type of casket they are buried in (pine, cedar or concrete) determines how intact the bones are, which affects how easily we can carefully remove them.”
Striking a balance between respect and efficiency, the team has been able to successfully relocate about six sets of remains daily since June 20.
For Calvert, the experience is not only invaluable for work in cultural-resource management but a crucial examination of what it means to be human.
“The physical aspects of what you’re uncovering in the field combine with the academic research you’re doing to create a makeshift picture,” she said. “It might not be complete, but it’s as close as we can get to the past and who we’ve always been — and that matters to who we are today.
“Our technology may advance, but as humans we’re essentially running on the same functional hardware.”
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Allie Kennedy echoed the value of connecting to her humanity. The 2020 MSU Denver Anthropology and Biology graduate has a background in criminal forensics and is frequently unable to discuss work projects due to their sensitive nature.
“I love that I get to share some of what I’m working on, primarily because it’s such an incredible team that has such respect and expertise,” Kennedy said. “I feel really blessed to be part of the project — so to speak.”
Sister Mary Nelle Gage retains the legacy of those being relocated. Having graduated from Loretto Heights College in 1966, she detailed how Catholic families fled persecution from the eastern U.S. and made their way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 19th century. The Sisters of Loretto, founded in 1812 in Kentucky, put down roots in Santa Fe in 1852.
“When the Gold Rush hit Colorado in 1864, they said, ‘Send the teaching sisters!’” Gage recounted. “That’s how we made it up here.”
After 20 years in downtown Denver at their original location of 15th and California (now a Hyatt Regency bearing a commemorative plaque), the organization moved to Loretto Heights. The location functioned as a standalone municipality until the City of Denver annexed it in 1969 and ceased burials there. Since then, interments have been held at the Mount Olivet location.
For Gage, the relocation led by Stock, Calvert, Kennedy and others has lived up to “all the care needed, required and expected” in such a sensitive matter.
And although the Sisters likely hadn’t envisioned that they would face these circumstances, their legacy of education carries on.
“To be at rest, only to have the shade pulled open to have new students coming to learn from you once again, is really unanticipated,” Gage said. “But the teaching doesn’t stop just because this chapter does.”
@msudenver ‘Operation: Sacred Rescue’ – our Roadrunners are getting hands-on experience digging up 62 nuns at Loretto Heights Cemetery and moving them across town to Mt. Olivet cemetery #FindYourEdge #anthropology ♬ Spooky, quiet, scary atmosphere piano songs – Skittlegirl Sound