The Back Story on the Development of The Bonfils Girl:
A Story for Women's History Month
by Mike Broemmel (Playwright)
Helen Bonfils is a woman who I sincerely believe should be known around the world. I write this piece sharing how and why I wrote the script for the play about her life. The Bonfils Girl is beginning its second year in continuous production and is one of the plays that I am most proud of, for many reasons. This includes the tremendous performance of Cathy Washburn, who plays the role of Helen Bonfils in the Colorado production of the play.
Ten years ago, I knew very little about Helen Bonfils – known in the latter part of her life simply as Miss Helen. I am a parishioner of Holy Ghost Church, one of the most beautiful churches in the world that I have ever been in (including the magnificent cathedrals in Europe). The corner stone of Holy Ghost makes note that the church was built by Helen Bonfils in memory of her parents.
After a couple of years as a parishioner at Holy Ghost, I found myself making a special monthly tithe to the church in which I asked that a Mass be said for the repose of Helen Bonfils. I never really pondered on where the idea came from, to ask that Masses be said for the woman who built the church I attend.
Not long after that, I became curious about the circumstances surrounding Miss Helen’s decision to pay the costs – all of them – associated with building an amazing church at the tail end of the Great Depression. As I recollect, the price tag back then was $3.5 million. I did the math. The amount Miss Helen spent building Holy Ghost is the equivalent of about $52 million in today’s dollars.
I discovered that Miss Helen, a devout Catholic, was concerned about the wellbeing of her father in the afterlife. Catholics have something of a three-tier destination for people who pass on: heaven, purgatory, and hell. Purgatory is something of a waystation where a dearly departed can make recompense and atone for wrongdoing during life and then enter heaven. In addition, people on Earth can pray for souls in purgatory as a means of shortening their time in that afterlife state.
Miss Helen’s father, Frederick, was not just the founder of the Denver Post newspaper, but he was a real scoundrel. He owned casinos, speakeasies, houses of prostitution. He managed to get shot in the butt by the attorney for infamous Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer. And rather than his assailant getting convicted for shooting him, Frederick Bonfils himself ended up convicted of jury tampering in the trio of trials of the gun-toting barrister.
Miss Helen worried her father was hell-bound. She made mention that she attempted to make “a deal” with the Lord to permit her father the ability to slide into purgatory. She prayed God give him a second chance to avoid the eternal fires of hell. She bargained that she would build a magnificent church that is now called Holy Ghost and asked the Lord to permit her father a place in purgatory in exchange.
My own response to this “deal” was that Miss Helen was practical and reasonable. She didn’t ask for her father to be let inside the majestic Pearly Gates … just a space in purgatory to allow the man one more shot at being something better than a rapscallion.
I started researching Helen Bonfils, with the intent of writing a biography. (I’d not yet written any plays at that juncture.) I quickly discovered she was the first woman in the U.S. to serve as the publisher of a major daily newspaper – the Denver Post for over 30 years. She was the first woman producer on Broadway.
And, a few months ago, and thanks to the term included in the obituary of her second husband – Tiger Mike Davis who died in September of last year … she very well may be the world’s first “cougar.” Yes, Tiger Mike evidently wanted it included in his own obituary that he was married to the world’s first cougar: Helen Bonfils. You see, at the time they wed, Tiger Mike was 28 and Miss Helen … well, she was 69.
Her generosity was boundless. Her money is the reason the Denver Performing Arts Center – one of the biggest in the nation – exists at all (and continues to operate). She founded the largest blood bank system west of the Mississippi (in response to the need for blood donations during the Second World War). The list is endless.
But, what is odd … almost no one knew of Helen Bonfils, including in Denver. Her portrait is buried in the back of a smaller performance space the Denver Performing Arts Center. The whole damn thing should bear her name.
There was literally no trace of her – or her father – anywhere in the Denver Post building. In the aftermath of the premiere of The Bonfils Girl (and I have zero idea if one had anything to do with the other, although I did speak with a couple of reporters from the newspapers), Miss Helen’s desk from her tenure at the Post was found and put into a conference room which now bears the Bonfils moniker.
Miss Helen died, estranged from her sole surviving family member and to be all but forgotten in the three decades that followed her passing.
In the end, I wrote the script to the play about Miss Helen’s life, with the help of a writing partner. The play continues to run. The Bonfils Girl ends with Miss Helen speaking these lines, seemingly from purgatory herself:
"My life … I didn’t do much. I always felt like I lived in Papa’s shadow. Lived in Papa’s shadow. That’s what I think my life was all about.
"The shadows ... they’re still here.
But, they’re not Papa’s shadows. No, they’re not. Not at all.
"The shadows … they are mine.
"Perhaps I am here … until I make my shadows go away."
And then it dawned on me … perhaps, some years ago, as I sat in the church built by Helen Bonfils, as I eventually started having Masses said for Miss Helen, even before I knew her story … perhaps, just perhaps … Miss Helen reached out from where she is today and asked me to remember her. And I have.