Willoughby: Aspen’s churches support others, their women build community

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Two iconic brick and stone churches of Aspen’s mining era still stand, St. Mary’s and the Community Church. Although two others did not survive, they were dominant institutions in their time.

When the Baptists organized in Aspen during 1886, they joined four other denominations — Catholic, Methodist Episcopal, Christian Church and Presbyterian. The Presbyterians and Methodists congregated at the Rink Opera House. The Baptists met at the corner of Hunter Street and Hopkins Avenue, and the Christian Church at the corner of Main and Aspen streets.

By 1888 the Baptists had a full-time local pastor, the Rev. Edward E. Knapp, who had come from Essex, Connecticut. With his arrival, services were moved to the courthouse. They held services three Sundays a month, at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., which included “service of song” before a sermon.

During 1889 the Baptist Ladies Aid Society began to hold fundraisers to build a church. These fundraisers usually involved a concert, often led by Mrs. Deane and Mrs. Stormer. Lee Hayes oversaw bids for the project, which went out in May. An early Aspen resident, Hayes was the county surveyor, and was known for his singing voice and evangelical speeches. The new church, built on the corner of Third Street and Hopkins Avenue, was dedicated in October.

During the following decade, the YMCA and Bible classes met at the church. Knapp moved to Laramie, Wyoming, and visiting pastors served the congregation for a period of time. Then they engaged the Rev. William Pearce, who moved on after two years.

The church attracted enough members to provide 50 singers for the Ladies Aid Society’s production, “The Temple of Fame,” at the Wheeler. The musical presented the stories of Harriet Beecher Stowe and other influential women. By 1892 the church was called the American Baptist Church.

The Scandinavian Lutherans began to hold services in 1888 with guest pastors from Denver. Much activity took place in that first year. They met at the Christian Church until they engaged the Rev. M.J. Wange and moved to the Presbyterian Church. Wange organized the group quickly to build on Main Street. They drew up plans for a church 51 feet by 24 feet, with a tower and belfry. Bids were out and the stone foundation was constructed by summer.

While they waited for their building, the congregation moved services to the courthouse. Holding a morning and evening service each Sunday, they juggled with others for space. By the beginning of 1890 most of the church had been completed, but the “cathedral glass — very handsome” windows had not arrived.

Local Lutherans did not always have a resident pastor. The larger Lutheran organization in the state helped out by sending visiting pastors. They wanted to provide services for Aspen’s Swedish families, native speaking Germans, and English speakers, too. They regularly engaged the Rev. W. Luessenhop for services in German. Over the years the church went by several names, including the Swedish Mission Church.

Aspen’s City Council condemned the church building as a fire hazard, during 1926. The parishioner base was too small to undertake the necessary repairs, so they returned to the practice of holding services without a church. At first they moved to the Kobey building downtown. And for many years they used the Elks Lodge space inside the Elks building.

Other churches that operated during this same period included the Christian Science Church, Christ Church-Episcopal, and St. Johns for the east end of town. Several changed names as they formed and reformed. But only a few survived to modern times.

Aspen’s religious groups appeared to work together to help each other out. Other churches hosted Scandinavian Lutheran services, in native Scandinavian and German. The Methodist Church hosted a fundraiser concert for the Scandinavian Church. The concert featured a choir, Mrs. George W. Crowe singing “Silence, Sweet Silence,” other solos. For the concert’s highlight, Julius Berg, Aspen’s confectioner, played the zither. The Scandinavian Lutherans’ fundraising efforts included a necktie social, “fishing pond social with favors for all,” and a pound party with games.

For this year’s celebration of the women of Aspen, it would be meaningful to recognize the women who organized and carried out fundraising in most churches. Their efforts attracted money, and they brought together and entertained the community.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at