Blend of faith, history helps fill these churches’ pews

Grace Episcopal Church, founded in 1874 at 601 N. Tejon. The church has about 600 members.

Grace Episcopal Church, founded in 1874 at 601 N. Tejon. The church has about 600 members.

Much as they do today, businesses, banks, theaters and restaurants lined Tejon Street a century ago.

Looking north in 1908, a visitor would have seen the steel frame of the new Exchange National Bank rising on the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon, flanked by the Crystal Theater, The Hub, the land office of J.H. Schisler and the imposing red sandstone structure that housed the First National Bank.

Those businesses have been swept away by time, as have their peers. No downtown business listed in a 1908 directory has survived.

Yet a number of other downtown enterprises, founded well before the turn of the 19th century, have endured for generations under the same ownership.

They constitute a “ring of faith” that encircles the city’s core — eight historic churches which anchor, define and enrich downtown Colorado Springs.

In many cities, once-vibrant downtown churches have seen congregations dwindle and resources shrink, as parishioners move to the suburbs. Church buildings have been sold, their once-sacred spaces converted to condos, restaurants or nightclubs.

That hasn’t happened in Colorado Springs.

How have the city’s elite eight survived despite population trends that have seen most of the region’s growth away from downtown? Moreover, what has it taken for these churches to maintain their historic structures, how are they surviving, and in some cases, even thriving?

“If you ask five people on any given Sunday why they came (to their church services), you’ll get five different answers,” said the Rev. Francisco Quesada, pastor of St. Mary’s cathedral. “It’s not the city, it’s the people.

“They treasure their faith, and they won’t do without it.”

But Quesada also believes the majesty and beauty of the historic cathedral are of vital importance to his parishioners, helping to drive attendance.

“It’s sacred space,” he said.

The Business Journal focused on the challenges facing four of the more prominent downtown congregations and how they’re coping.

‘First Pres’

Sprawling over nearly two square blocks adjacent to City Hall, the First Presbyterian Church is downtown’s largest. Founded during 1872 to serve “eight enthusiastic members,” the church grew to 1,000 members by the turn of the century, and to more than 5,000 by 1989, where it has remained since. It’s a substantial business by any measure, with an annual budget of more than $8 million, 180 full and part-time employees, and more than a 1,000 volunteers who donate their time.

The annual budget, said leader of staff Brenda Smith, is entirely funded “by those who call the church their home.”

Unlike most of its downtown peers, “First Pres” has never been sentimentally attached to its buildings, having demolished its 1888 sanctuary in 1957 and it original sanctuary dome in 2000.

Like any successful business, “First Pres” has a strategic plan. Approved four years ago, the ministry master plan lays out a blueprint for ministries of hope, healing and spiritual transformation, as well as for suburban expansion.

Now holding services at the Da Vinci Academy in northeast Colorado Springs, the church plans to build a satellite facility in the Flying Horse subdivision.

“We’re incredibly blessed,” said Smith, “(to be given the opportunity) to reach out and help others.”

Heart-rich

The twin steeples of St. Mary’s Cathedral, “the mother church of Roman Catholicism in the Pikes Peak Region,” have marked downtown’s western boundary since 1907. Extensively renovated in recent years, St. Mary’s welcomes approximately 1,400 worshippers every Sunday.

“It’s an inner-city parish,” said the Rev. Quezada. “We have 100-200 families in our geographic base, but then there are many more from all over the city, and from the military.”

Quezada concedes that historic buildings have their challenges.

“Some could say that we’re building-rich but cash-poor,” he said, “but I call it heart-rich.”

The cathedral’s annual budget of approximately $900,000 is entirely funded by parishioners.

“We still have $900,000 in debt (from the renovation),” said Quezada, “so we’re working through it.”

On the national register

The First Congregational Church’s 1889 Richardsonian Romanesque building on North Tejon is the oldest church building in Colorado Springs continuously used by the same congregation. Five years ago, the church launched an ambitious restoration program, which has so far cost almost $2 million.

“We’ve received a total of about $1.5 million in grants for the restoration,” said church member (and prominent historic preservationist) Judith Rice-Jones. “Most of the funds were from the state historical fund. We were eligible for the funds due to the many community activities which take place in our church and because only one of the windows included an obviously religious symbol.”

Restoration of the building’s spectacular stained glass cost more than $1 million.

Last Sunday, the congregation voted to borrow funds to repair failing interior plaster dating from 1888.

“Given that our church is on the national register of historic places,” said Rice-Jones, “we will, of course, maintain the historic features.”

And, she added, the radiant interior spaces of the church are prized by both parish veterans and new arrivals.

Renovation at Grace

Grace Episcopal Church’s iconic 1926 building, designed by the architects of the Washington National Cathedral, was at the center of a bitter split among parishioners three years ago. A majority voted to leave the Episcopal Church, and attempted to claim the church buildings and assets as well. Loyalist parishioners, supported by the national church, successfully sued to force the return of the property.

The “secessionists” relinquished the building, which was reclaimed by the Episcopal loyalists who had been worshipping for two years at downtown’s First Christian Church. The church complex, which occupies half a square block on Tejon Street, has been valued at more than $17 million.

Few secessionists have returned, despite their long ties to the building.

“It’s just been a tragedy for us,” said one former parishioner, who didn’t want to be identified. “We’ve been church-hopping, but we haven’t found a home.”

Despite dire predictions that the much-diminished congregation wouldn’t be able to maintain the building, and might be forced to sell it to developers, the church has thrived.

“The building by itself attracts people,” said Warden David Watts.

“We’ve reduced our expenses by half since before the secession,” Watts said, “and our average Sunday attendance has grown by 50 percent since we returned to the building. And unlike most Episcopal congregations, we’re getting younger.”

Prior to the split, the church had leased eight vehicles for employee use, at a cost of $50,000 annually.

“Now we don’t lease any,” Watts said, “and we only have two full-time employees. We have more than 100 volunteers who do everything from maintaining the grounds to cleaning the building.”

Such businesslike practices have enabled Grace to launch a $300,000 renovation of the 1898 McWilliams residence, which serves the church as its parish house. The state historical fund will contribute $171,000 of the total, and the Downtown Development Authority is kicking in another $20,000.

Interestingly, the state historical preservation fund, the nation’s largest, is wholly supported by taxes from casino gambling.