Saint John's Church in the Wilderness, 1860 - Today
How the Episcopal Church in America was officially started
Church of England bishops could not consecrate any bishop that would not take an oath of allegiance to the British crown. Scotland and the American colonies shared a commonality: each had been at war with England. In 1784, the American Bishop Samuel Seabury was consecrated (justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/282.html) by bishops in Scotland, launching what became the Episcopal Church in this country. This development explains why our church is not called the Church of England in America. The consecration is commemorated at the Kirkin’ o the Tartan (Blessing of the Tartans), a very popular and colorful event celebrated annually at Saint John’s with participants in full-dress tartans and with Scottish dancing, bagpipes and drums.
Going back further, the Church of England traces its roots to the 1st or 2nd century AD, when Christianity came to England during Roman times. A key event occurred in 1534 when King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church over who had ultimate political power in England—the king or the Pope in Rome. (Henry also wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, not allowed by the Catholics.) The Church of England was developed by Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (reign 1558-1603), who sought to bridge differences between Catholics and Protestants in her realm.
Early Years (1860-1872)
When Father John H. Kehler arrived by stagecoach on January 17, 1860, to establish an Episcopal congregation, Denver was little more than a series of competing mining camps at the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek. Fr. Kehler came west leaving his congregation in Sharpsburg, Maryland - his Union leanings unpopular locally in the rising tensions before the Civil War. Fr. Kehler was warmly received by the miners in the camps, and many attended the first service on January 29th, although one wonders whether this was because of Fr. Kehler's piety or because of his other valuable contribution to early Denver society, his daughters of marriageable age - two of whom were married within the year!
Over the next year, Denver City was incorporated, Colorado became a territory and our congregation was chartered as "Saint John's Church in the Wilderness" - so named because the nearest Episcopal parish was seven hundred miles away in Kansas. When the Rt. Rev. Joseph C. Talbot, missionary bishop of "all out doors," arrived in 1861, he was surprised to find an Episcopal Church flourishing in such a far flung locale: "I found a large room...quite filled by a congregation of intelligent and apparently earnest worshipers." Fr. Kehler was soon called to serve as Chaplain with the Colorado Volunteers in the Civil War. Nevertheless, the outbreak of the war also brought an opportunity to Saint John's, which found its first regular home in a church abandoned by the Southern Methodists at 14th and Arapahoe streets.
Saint John's Gets a Dean (1872-1902)
H. Martyn Hart, a young clergyman from London, first came to Denver on a recuperative trip to America. After hunting buffalo in Kansas, he passed through Denver in 1872 before continuing on through Utah, San Francisco, Japan, China and India. He made such a good impression on the little church in Denver during his short stay, with his sermons and lecture on "the zoology of the sea," that the Vestry several times asked him to come and be the Rector of Saint John's. Eventually, they won Hart over with the description of Denver as "no longer in the midst of a barren plain," with "cultivated trees," streetcars, gas, "more recently the telephone." Saint John's congregation was described as having a boy choir, having "a pretty efficient organist," and being a parish "lacking somewhat in vital, spiritual life [but] not torn by dissension." Lastly, it was pointed out that since Hart's previous visit, seven years earlier, there had been only nineteen days without sunshine!
Thus the Vestry of Saint John's Church in the Wilderness called Hart to be the fifth Rector. Furthermore, Bishop John Franklin Spalding, missionary Bishop of Colorado and Wyoming, announced his intention to institute a "Cathedral system" for Colorado and named Hart the Dean and incorporated "The Bishop and Chapter of the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Denver, Colorado." As there were just a few cathedrals in the Episcopal Church at the time, and only two of them built as cathedrals, there was no settled opinion as to what a cathedral was, or as to what a cathedral dean did - not to mention a Cathedral located in the Wild West. However, two years later, on November 7, 1881, Saint John's moved into its first Cathedral church at the corner of 20th and Welton.
Hart took Denver by storm. Frequently at odds with Bishop Spalding, with his fellow clergy, with the Denver press (which he claimed never to read), with the purveyors of "Sunday night amusements," and with gun sellers, he was a civic and even a national presence. At one point an angry mob even attacked the deanery! Nevertheless, during Dean Hart's tenure, our congregation prospered, as did Denver. Notably in 1887, the Dean along with Monsignor William O'Ryan of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church, the Reverend Myron W. Reed of the 1st Congregational Church, and Rabbi William S. Friedman of Temple Emanuel, founded the Denver Charity Organization, the first community charity solicitation fund in the United States - later renamed The United Way, now the largest charitable fundraising organization in the world.
"Cast down, but not destroyed" (1903 - 1920)
Disaster struck. "A miscreant set fire to the old Cathedral on Friday night, May 15, 1903," Hart later wrote. The Dean personally rescued the carvings from the burning Cathedral and directed the firefighting efforts, but the building could not be saved. Hart immediately began planning for the new Cathedral. The congregation was invited to worship on Sundays at Temple Emanuel and did so until the new Chapter House was built on the site of the new and present Cathedral block at 14th and Washington.
The cornerstone for the current Cathedral was laid on January 24, 1909, and the first service held within on November 5, 1911. Of the original design, the two transepts, choir and great tower have never been built. Only the nave was completed of limestone with a "temporary" brick chancel. The height of the ceiling in the Nave is 65 feet. It is 185 feet long and 52 feet wide. In the intervening years it has come to contain much artwork of significance, including Oberammergau carvings (many from the 1st Cathedral) and stained glass from the Edward Frampton studios of London and the Charles J. Connick studios of Boston.
After forty years of service to the Cathedral and to Denver, Martyn Hart died on March 24, 1920, after becoming a U.S. citizen the previous year. Despite the controversy of his deanship, he was universally lauded and is now buried under the Celtic cross east of the nave, next to what later became All Souls' Walk.
New Chapel and Parish House (1921-1936)
After the relatively short deanship of Duncan Browne, Benjamin D. Dagwell was called in 1924, from the Church of the Ascension in Pueblo, Colorado, to be the third Dean of Saint John's Cathedral. Under Dean Dagwell, the construction debt for the Cathedral was retired, the Cathedral consecrated, the Parish House was built along with Saint Martin's Chapel, and the Cathedral played host to the fiftieth General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1931. In November of 1935, he was called to be Bishop of Oregon and resigned the following January. Dean Dagwell had been the only dean in our history to leave Saint John's to become a bishop, but this history was amended in 2015 when Dean Peter Eaton was elected Bishop coadjutor of Southeastern Florida. An interesting detail: as Bishop of Oregon, Dagwell would go on to ordain one Alfred Wade Eaton, the father of Peter Eaton.
Advocacy and growth (1936-1957)
The Vestry again looked to the south for the fourth Dean, to Paul Roberts, then Rector of Grace and St. Stephen's Church in Colorado Springs. Again, Saint John's had a Rector committed to the building up of the congregation as well as a Dean who was a public figure in Denver and beyond. Dubbed "the Red Dean" by the local press, Roberts was a committed pacifist, even during World War II. He also championed the rights of women and minorities, when neither of these causes was popular. He is credited with integrating several institutions in Colorado. Nevertheless, he was loved by the congregation for his preaching, humor and tireless efforts on its behalf. Upon retirement Roberts was honored as "Denver's First Citizen," "the Dean of Humanity," "Champion of Every Good Cause," and "the father of the human rights-civil rights movement in Denver."
Among his lasting initiatives are founding The Open Door, the Parish Council, and St. Martha's Guild. During the post-war boom, the parish also boomed. Membership topped three thousand, with a thousand attending the Church School on Sundays. In 1955, the Chapter House was pulled down and construction of an educational building three times larger was begun. Unknown to the Dean, the Vestry named this building the Dean Paul Roberts Building. And while St. John's remained committed to its urban home, it also reached out to the growing suburbs. Roberts was Dean when the Cathedral founded parishes throughout the Denver area, including St. Paul's, Lakewood, Christ Church, Denver, St. Philip and St. James, Denver. This continued the trend begun earlier. Dean Dagwell and Canon Harry Watts helped to found the parish of St. Michael and All Angels in Denver. And early in its history, in 1874, the Sunday School of Saint John's founded Trinity Memorial Chapel, which later became St. Andrew's, Denver.
Cultural Change (1958-1980)
The 60's and 70's were times of profound and unsettling change in our nation and likewise for Saint John's. Dean William Lea, who had the daunting task of following Paul Roberts, served only four years before leaving to be Rector of Christ Church, Winnetka, Illinois. In 1963, the parish called its own Canon, Herbert Barrall to be the next Rector. Seven months later, Bishop Joseph Minnis installed him as the sixth Dean of the Cathedral.
Dean Barrall articulated a "team ministry" approach and with an extraordinarily able staff expanded the programmatic offerings of the Cathedral. Pastoral ministry was expanded, from youth to seniors. Our Cathedral Camp was established, when a choir camping program was extended to all the children of the parish. And under the leadership of Canon Russell Nakata the Cathedral Social Services Committee expanded, taking on a Diocese-wide role. This Episcopal Pastoral Care Center eventually became the St. Francis Center. Schools and agencies made their home at the Cathedral, including a school for the disabled and the Colorado Council of Churches. In 1976, Saint John's made land available for the Diocesan Center to be relocated to the Cathedral block. Finally, Barrall oversaw many milestones at Saint John's: the first African-American vestry member, James Burress, the first woman on the Vestry, Elizabeth Brown, the first person under thirty years of age on the Vestry, Marquis Bell, and the first clergy woman clergy person on staff, the Reverend Kate Knapp.
However, as much as Saint John's profited from these changes, it was also caught up in the social upheaval of the time. The Denver Public Schools were desegregated, resulting in "white flight" from the urban core of Denver. The Vietnam War divided the congregation, particularly along generational lines. In addition to cultural change, the Episcopal Church also was changing. After many years of "trial liturgies" in the 1970's, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which had been ratified in Denver in 1931, was replaced, again in Denver, at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1979. And there was upheaval in the Diocese also as Bishop Joseph Minnis resigned under a cloud and from the pressure of an ecclesiastical court convened to try him in 1968. Thus under Dean Barrall's twenty-one years of leadership, the Cathedral experienced its greatest success, followed in short order by tumult and decline.
1980's Revitalization (1981-1990)
The early 1980's saw a reversal of decline and a resurgence at Saint John's under the leadership of Donald McPhail, the 7th Dean. Recommitted to its urban locale, the Cathedral again prospered, with another able staff - which included the Reverend Canon Robert O'Neill, who is today Bishop of Colorado. The Music Department reclaimed its history of preeminence. The first woman was ordained at the Cathedral. St. Andrew's, the nearby downtown parish originally founded by Saint John's Sunday School, was made a mission of the Cathedral and put on course to become the thriving parish it is today.
Saint John's Today
In 1991, Charles Kiblinger became Rector and Dean. During difficult initial years, he worked for reconciliation among the parish and brought a quiet, prayerful approach to his ministry. He also brought a strong emphasis on preaching and teaching, establishing the Catechumenate process and the EFM program at Saint John's. The Cathedral weathered a difficult time and emerged intact. A capital campaign was launched to renovate the Cathedral steps, providing wheelchair access, and to reconfigure the basement and first floors of the Roberts Building - bringing the Cathedral block to its current configuration. And the Cathedral at the turn of the millennium hosted the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for a third time. During this celebratory year, Dean Kiblinger resigned and took a position at Virginia Theological Seminary. Beloved E. M. "Bert" Womack, Jr., was made interim Dean until Peter Eaton was elected as the 9th Dean in 2001. Dean Eaton was elected Bishop coadjutor of Southeastern Florida on January 31, 2015 and celebrated his last Sunday at the Cathedral on April 19, 2015.
Today, Saint John's Cathedral continues its rich Anglican tradition of historic ministry in downtown Denver along with the tradition of forward-looking, public ministry on the frontier.
This short history is no more than a glimpse at our rich history and draws almost exclusively on our official history: Saint John's Church in the Wilderness: A History of St. John's Cathedral in Denver, Colorado, 1860 - 2000 by Robert Irving Woodward. Denver: Prairie Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Also see the Diocesan History: Breck, Allen du Pont. The Episcopal Church in Colorado 1860 - 1963. Denver: Big Mountain Press, 1963.