Where We Have Worshipped
By Rev. Betty Pingel
On May 21, 1871, in response to an ad in the Rocky Mountain News, a group met in the District Court Room with the Rev. L. E. Beckwith, recently graduated from Harvard, to discuss Unitarianism. The group chose to become a church and First Unitarian Society of Denver was incorporated in the Territory of Colorado in that year. The Rev. Beckwith was asked to be their minister, and they met at the old Denver Theatre at the corner of Lawrence and G (now 16th) Streets. Later that year, they closed for the summer as did most Unitarian churches of the time.
When they got back together on October 1, 1871, they rented a school room from the Colorado Methodist Seminary (now the University of Denver), but after two Sundays, the school’s trustees, objecting to their theology, and asked them to leave. So until December 5th they met in Pastor Beckwith’s parlor which was on California between 17th and 18th Streets. Next, they met in the 3rd story hall of Crow’s Block on Halladay St. (now Market). During the week the House of Representatives of the Territorial Legislature met there; the floor was covered with sawdust and legend has it there were various bullet holes in the walls.
Beckwith’s health failed and he left on May 26, 1872. A new minister, WGM Stone, arrived in early October, but there was no service to welcome him as there was no space available to them. The Presbyterian Church on 17th had been asked but would not consider renting to them. The place finally rented to them was the Baptist “dug-out” on the corner of Curtis and G Streets. This was the cellar of a new building, completely underground, which had no superstructure yet so it was roofed with “common rough boards.” The group decided that the underground space with mud floor and basically unroofed were not suitable for religious gatherings, and this time they chose to leave.
Next they met for a time on the ground floor of the law offices of Belden and Powers, members of the church, rent free. After April of 1873 until the church closed for summer vacation, they met once again in the Denver Theatre on Lawrence and G paying $30 a month.
This fledgling church established in 1871 in its two and a half years of existence had made seven changes of worship space. It was time to consider building their own space from which they could not be kicked out. On February 23, 1873, official action was taken to look for property and to build for a sum not to exceed $10,000.
For some perspective into our history in Denver, remember that Denver was founded only in 1858 and Colorado did not become a state until eighteen years later, in 1876.
The Subscription Committee could not raise that much money and settled for $5,000 instead. Four lots at 17th and California were purchased for $2,500 and a lovely church seating 225 people was dedicated on December 28, 1873. However, success was short-lived and in the 1878-79 church year their expenses exceeded income by $1000. The trustees then voted to turn the “social, religious, and especially financial matter into the hands of the ladies of the church, whose zeal, fidelity, faith, courage and executive ability had long since been fully proved.” They then advised the “ladies” to sell the property, pay the debts and “consider the effort to establish a Liberal Church in Denver a failure.”
The women chose to ignore that advice and with a number of various fund raising events paid off the debt and reopened the church. Many of these events required the use of Emily Belden’s stove which has a history all its own. I cannot find what happened between the years of 1879 and 1886 which allowed the building to be sold and land purchased for a larger building at 19th and B roadway, but on Sunday, November 7, 1886, the cornerstone was laid at the corner. The California site was sold for $8,000; the new owners sold it for $24,000 and later in the century it was sold for $30,000. Today?
In 1946, Frank Merriam Keezer, a long time pillar of the church, wrote this in a pamphlet, Historical Sketches of the 1st Unitarian Church of Denver: “For three quarters of a century we have carried on. Sometimes we have staggered, often we have stumbled, but we have never fallen. When the going was hard and difficult we have lifted our heads high and with level eyes marched forward, every carrying aloft the banner of our faith, the flag of the free and untrammeled church, the ensign of Unitarianism.”
The church on the southeast corner of the 19th and Broadway was dedicated on September 4, 1887. Costing $42,358, it was described as one of the most beautiful church building in Denver, built of brick with red sandstone trimmings. The sanctuary was approached by a flight of fourteen broad stone steps and the building was surrounded by a green lawn. The sanctuary was furnished in oak and lighted by beautiful memorial windows of stained glass of which only the Good Samaritan window at the front of our current church office and two angels remain.
There was a gallery on the west and one on the east behind the pulpit for an organ and the choir. It was possible to seat nearly 1,000 people. (This was the church in which I grew up, was married and in which all four of my children were christened.) This building, called Unity Church at the time, hosted many firsts for Denver. In its basement was housed the first public kindergarten, and a sewing room where the ladies of the church taught girls how to sew so that they had a saleable and honorable skill. In the evenings there were classes for boys who had to work during the day and so could not attend public school. The “Associated Charities,” a forerunner to the United Way, was established here. Also the Rocky Mountain News reported in December of 1893 that the church had departed from church custom by having six women ushers!
By the 1950’s the building was in disrepair and too expensive to bring up to code. Imagine having only one stool in the Ladies Room, and that in the basement, far from the sanctuary. Or imagine the minister’s office in a tower room in which the only heat was a wood-stove at the bottom of the staircase that led to it. The City of Denver was near to condemning the property, so a search committee was formed to find a new home for the congregation.
The committee was divided between those who wanted to find land and build and those who wanted to purchase an existing building. Land was found at the corner of Cherry Creek Drive and University, but congregants felt it was too far from Denver’s center. At the same time, Plymouth Congregational Church, who owned the building at 14th and Lafayette, was constructing a new home at Hampden and Colorado Boulevard. The elders of Plymouth, wanting to keep a liberal presence in their Capitol Hill church building, offered a good deal to the FUSD congregation, and it voted to purchase 1400 Lafayette. The first services in our present building were held in 1958.
As the church grew and baby boomers were born, two building to the north on Lafayette were purchased for the church school. In the late 1970’s came some rough times for First Unitarian; the church needed major repairs, and the other building were sold. But First Unitarian had had rough times before. By 1984 there was a new minister, a design for renovation, and a successful building fund drive. Then on Sunday, December 8, 1985, a fire swept the church, extensively damaging much of the roof structure and building interior. The decision was made by the congregation to continue with the renovation plans and stay in the current building.
For two years Sunday space was rented at the former home of B.M.H. Synagogue, Temple Canter, at 16th and Gaylord. On May 10, 1987, the first Sunday service was held in the renovated church and the formal dedication service was held on May 24. The choir presented a Dedication Cantata written by Elizabeth Sellers, the Music Director. Part of the lyrics read:
We invite all to share with us, grow with us,
Teach us, learn from us.
We are one with the Spirit and the world.
Out of the black depths did we struggle
and reach ever higher,
Board by board, nail by nail.
Heart and mind, body and soul poured forth!
Built on a rock, this church does stand,
The rock of our determination and abiding love.
And here we still are, 137 years after that Rocky Mountain News ad of 1871 saying that Rev. Beckwith would discuss Unitarianism in the District Court Room on Sunday.