Former Catholic priest, Steve Handen, walked the talk of doing unto others and lived by the adage, “Live simply so other people can simply live.”
He also challenged others to join him in that mission, which included helping to found the Marian House Soup Kitchen, Ithaka Land Trust (now Ithaka Land under different leadership and a different mission), an anti-war movement and helping, feeding and housing the poor, most notably immigrants.
Handen’s personal mission ended July 12 when he died at 81 after a struggle with bladder cancer.
Those who embraced his life’s work say the best tribute is to continue those pursuits.
But the self-effacing Handen would not approve of that wording, his daughter, Emmy Handen, says.
“He wouldn’t say it’s his work,” she says. “It’s all of our work. It’s not following in his footsteps. We’re doing what needs to be done.”
Handen was born in 1939 in Minneapolis and grew up in Denver, the son of a tire vulcanizer during World War II and a homemaker who worked full-time as a telephone operator and took in sewing and child care work to raise her three children after her husband died when Steve was 4.
Handen entered the seminary in the early 1960s. There, he met Bill Sulzman.
Even while in the seminary, Handen was known for his outreach to migrants in Brighton and Greeley. “That was his pastoral work,” Sulzman says.
After Handen was ordained, Sulzman attended his first mass in 1965. By 1969, Handen had relocated to Colorado Springs just as Sulzman returned from Rome.
Together, they and others worked to oppose the Vietnam War and advance the teachings of social justice that stemmed from the Vatican II ecumenical council.
By the 1970s, Sulzman says, Handen had taken on working with the homeless. Even as the war raged, he led a campaign, which included letters to the editor of newspapers, to reject violence and embrace the disadvantaged. But Handen found the church resistant to change and in 1973 resigned the priesthood, as did Sulzman. Three years later, he married Mary Lynn Sheetz, who survives him. Yet, Handen continued to worship in his parish, Our Lady of Guadeloupe.
In the early 1980s, Handen established Ithaka Land Trust, which aspired to acquire permanent housing for the poor and create a community supportive of social justice and environmental responsibility. He led Ithaka for 20 years.
He then launched Mesa House, a refuge for immigrants, substance abusers and others in need of support. Handen introduced free medical clinics for those in need, a precursor to Peak Vista Community Health Centers, Sulzman says.
Sulzman called him compassionate, smart, “a tremendous organizer” and activist. “He wasn’t just a thinker, he was a doer with a lot of skills and ability to inspire other people,” he says.
Handen, and others in the Bijou Community, so-named after the Bijou House, 411 W. Bijou St., Ithaka’s first purchase, tried to keep his annual income below taxable levels, because he didn’t want to contribute to wars, Emmy Handen says.
During her growing up years, Emmy says she observed her dad’s unwavering sense of justice, duty and hope for finding ways to improve life for the most vulnerable.
“He also asked that the community never let folks sit back and feel good about themselves just because they served a bowl of soup,” she says. “How can we make it better? Why don’t we have enough for everybody?”
Or, in Handen’s own words before he died, as shared by his family with friends of Mesa House: “Your mission is not just to serve soup; it is also to walk a journey with the people who walk in the door. Stand by the broken, defend the lonely, welcome the stranger, befriend the friendless, protect the children, fight for justice. Every time you serve a bowl of soup, praise God for your ability to do that, and at the same time ask why someone is coming to the door for a bowl of soup.”
In the last year, Handen had become deeply troubled to learn Ithaka Land had changed its name and mission — shifting from permanent housing of the poor to transitional housing until residents can pay market-based rents, though some Ithaka residents are ill-equipped to do that, either by age or disability.
Handen and other supporters of the original Ithaka have asked the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to investigate the new Ithaka’s move to sell more than half of the two dozen houses it owns to one developer at prices below market value while financing some of the deals with zero-interest loans.
While unresolved at his death, the issue won’t be abandoned, Emmy says. “I think he trusted he was leaving it in the hands of people who wouldn’t let it drop,” she says.
The group wants to somehow reacquire the Bijou House, sold by the new Ithaka last year to a developer, and if so, inter Handen’s cremains in the columbarium there, which serves as the final resting place of hundreds of homeless people.
“If there is some way we got the property back, we would bury him there,” Emmy says.
Handen’s patience and capacity for tolerating opposing points of view set an example for everyone, Emmy says.
When Handen received a letter of criticism, he wrote back, establishing long-standing relationships. “He had several people he corresponded with for decades that came from hate mail,” she says.
When the Independence Community Fund awarded Handen its Community Builder Award in 2003, attorney Greg Walta described Handen as “a principled and humble nonconformist who tries to pattern his life after the teachings of Gandhi and Christ.
“Day by day,” he added, “he’s handed out love in a hard town. We’re indebted for that. We’ve been lucky to have him.”
Sulzman says Handen, in a way, always carried out pastoral work — he was performing funerals and weddings “right up to the end” — which is why his passing will impact so many people. “Perhaps his legacy lies within the people whose lives he touched,” he says.
Sulzman became emotional when relating that he got word of his friend’s death within a half hour of his passing.
“I was planning to go out and water my flowers,” he says. When he got the news, at first he hesitated, but then thought, “That’s the perfect thing to do. The best thing that could happen would be people carry on his work.”
It’s exactly what his wife did that night just hours after his death. She regularly hosts a bilingual domino game where people drop in and learn Spanish or help others learn while playing. She held the session as usual on July 12.
“Somebody said, ‘Don’t you want to take a break?’” Emmy says. “But she related what he always said: ‘The death of any one man should not stop the world.’ The best way to honor him is to keep the garden going.”
Besides Emmy and his wife, Handen leaves a son, David Spence, all of whom are involved in Mesa House; another son, Luis Mejia, of Honduras, and a sister, Mary. A brother, David, preceded him in death.
A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. July 23 at Sacred Heart Church, 2030 W. Colorado Ave. A sharing time will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in parish hall.