St. John’s Church in the Wilderness
— by Donna Altieri
Driving up 14th Avenue, you pass St. John’s Cathedral. You might have noticed it on your way to the Botanic Gardens, or seen its towers while waiting in line at the Fillmore. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones to have walked around this magnificent church or attended a service inside. St. John’s reflects the history of Denver, the nature of Colorado, the story of the Episcopal Church, and the architectural styles of multiple decades. The highlights of the Bible are carved in wood, blown in glass, and etched in stone. St. John’s has been an integral part of Denver’s history for the last 150 years.
Like some other institutions in Denver, St. John’s Church in the Wilderness, as it was first called, started off holding services in a tavern on Larimer Street between 14th and 15th street. While drinking and shopping in Larimer Square, close your eyes and conjure a service from 1861. The first cathedral church (at 20th and Welton) burned down in 1903; the cornerstone for the present Gothic masterpiece was planted in 1909, and so began dozens of great adventures for St. John’s.
Enter through the front doors and see a real Tiffany Window saved from the 1903 fire, stained glass dedicated to a child who had died. While in the narthex, you can examine a stone from Canterbury Cathedral; I like to pretend I’m on a mini trip into the world of Chaucer. Enter from the east doors and view a stained glass window hanging by chains, three angels playing musical instruments; it’s dark and gloomy color reveals smoke damage from the Welton Street church fire.
The stained glass windows of St. John’s rival the glass of European churches. Take a good look at the first window of the west aisle, “The Entrance of Sin,” a portrait of Eve in the Garden of Eden ready to make her fatal mistake while a “very English” lion stares at her. She started out as a naked blonde beauty, a clone of the Dean’s wife. Unfortunately, the prudish Edwardian congregation soon installed long golden locks and a rose bush obscuring her “loveliness.”
If you ever get to climb the spiral stairs to the choir loft you’ll see a window that World War I brought to Denver. It was finished in London in 1914, moved by boat, train and oxcart up to this north portal. In one corner, a miniature St. John’s in glass is a dollhouse dream, and the inscription “This great window finished and fixed in the year of the great Armageddon of the Apocalypse” – the first year of the Great War – sums up this glass “Last Judgement.”
Here are just a couple more treats from St. John’s: the carvings on the altar choir pews, a real walk in Colorado’s woods, from squirrels to deer to bears, and in St. Martin’s Chapel, often used for Sudanese and Somalian services, there’s an Art Deco altar that showers the church with eclecticism.
Next time those massive front doors are open, and the flags are blowing, treat yourself to a spiritual, beautiful experience.
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B50 Note: Contemporary images are courtesy of the author, historical images are courtesy of the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library. The author wishes to thank David Rote for his enlightening tour and to “Saint John’s Church in the Wilderness” by Robert Irving Woodward for it’s bounty of information. St. John’s Cathedral is currently raising funds to the restoration of the 1938 Kimball organ that has given the Denver community so many great concerts.