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Know the West

He came to ski and stayed to help


(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)

Roman Catholic Archbishop J. Francis Stafford sprinkled holy water around an apartment complex in the resort town of Silverthorne, Colo., last June. He was blessing the apartments, which the church had helped establish, and he blessed the poverty-stricken families who'd moved in.

The apartments are a solid, two-story manifestation of the sermons the archbishop delivers to Colorado's ski country.

"Acknowledge the morally ambiguous heritage of land speculation, homesteading and development subterfuge in the Rocky Mountain West," the archbishop told a banquet-roomful of movers and shakers in the Beaver Creek resort on Feb. 1, high season. "We in Colorado can redirect those forces ... to model justice."

The archbishop called upon the black-tie crowd to "consider the fatigue of working long hours for low pay, and then commuting great distances and paying exorbitant rent for substandard housing - is it any wonder that alcohol and drug problems and domestic violence have increased? ... All those affected by the explosive economic activity on the Western Slope have a right to share in its fruits ..."

Acting in Colorado's ski country as it does on missions in the Third World, the Catholic Church speaks of guilt and compassion.

In the town of Minturn, between the Vail and Beaver Creek resorts, Father Tom Dentici, vicar for the Western Slope, is fluent in the language of affordable housing, land use, and how rising prices and taxes disenfranchise the poor and elderly. Father Tom, as he's called, says the population of Hispanic immigrants in the Eagle Valley is shooting up 40 percent per year and, "We need to give people a chance to get started and move up."

At the other end of the valley, spry 65-year-old Sister Annette Carrica plays electric keyboard and sings hymns in the Spanish-language mass held in a trailer park's community center. The mass is recited by a traveling priest every Tuesday night, to accommodate all the people who work Sunday mornings in the service industry, and it's standing-room only: men in jean jackets and Nikes, women in their best dresses, babies fidgeting, everybody who's old enough singing a refrain about heading toward God, "Vamos a la casa del Señor."

"My father was an immigrant sheepherder," says Sister Annette. "We spoke Basque at home. So I can relate." She's taken a vow of poverty as a member of the Sisters of Charity order, and lives in the trailer park. She helps people by translating when the pipes leak and a plumber must be called, helps them work out wage disputes and problems with the law. "I help them be a community."

The 62-year-old archbishop has become ski country's public conscience. From his pulpit he's been sending thunder over the mountains, going on what he calls pilgrimages through the ski towns and rural worker barrios, prodding efforts to even out the wealth.

"I speak what I see. It's an honesty. At times it might seem like a terrible honesty," he says.

Stafford got to know Colorado decades ago, on a ski vacation; he was a young priest from Baltimore, where he'd learned "the richness of the ethnic community," which included Jews, Poles, blacks. He says a Jesuit high school imprinted him with a tradition of advocacy and a goal of racial justice.

Stafford's skiing buddy back then was a Brooklyn priest, Father Tom Dentici. "When I first started skiing in Colorado," says Father Tom, "there was only one ski lift in Aspen. I used to drive through this (Eagle) valley, and it was filled with sheep. Vail didn't exist."

Nine years ago, after Father Tom earned a position in ski country, Stafford also came west for work, becoming archbishop of Denver, responsible for the northern half of Colorado's mountains. Stafford heard from one of his old ski instructors about the squeeze on ski-country workers. Then he received a letter from a woman who asked him to look into the plight of poor Hispanic workers on the Western Slope. "She sent photos, too," of people living in cars, tents, trailers -- "very powerful ... That was my turning point."

Now the archbishop researches ski-country problems in person, speaking with "elderly people in their homes, ranchers on their ranches ... young families and those who are concerned with the ecological issue." He writes lyrically to the public about the Rockies casting "the shadows of heaven itself." He quotes other thinkers such as Stephen Covey, author of Principle Centered Leadership ("The ethical person looks at every economic transaction as a test of his or her moral stewardship.").

Under Stafford's leadership, the archdiocese has created crucial housing projects like the one in Silverthorne. They involve no church money. Instead, the church competes with other developers to win tax credits offered by a federal program. With good planning and by demonstrating a local need, the church has won $17 million in tax credits, which it then offers to investors who execute the projects. The result is inexpensive apartments that rent to people who meet federal poverty guidelines.

The church is behind 177 such apartments in Silverthorne and Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. The apartments rent for roughly half the free-market rate. Private developers are copying the model in a half-dozen or so additional projects for working-class tenants.

Before moving into Villa Sierra Madre, the Silverthorne project, cafe cook Patti Stoddard lived with her three kids and common-law husband in a dilapidated trailer, then a tent in the forest, then an abandoned house that had no running water. When they finally got into the subsidized apartment, "The first night, everybody could not wait to take a shower or a hot bath. To have a toilet that flushed, to be in a real place to live again ..."

"There is a fragmentation in these communities," Stafford says. "It shows itself in the lack of communication between the business people, on an entrepreneurial level. And clearly, there is not much dialogue going between the middle- and upper-class people who run these resort communities, and the service workers."

The archbishop encourages "dialogue with fellow citizens. They may be poorer, they may speak a different language." He believes the leaders of ski country can transcend profit and earthly power. "They are people of concerned conscience. There is no defensiveness. It's more a question of, how do we help people understand what the next step will be?"

- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor