Legend or lore? – Part II: Which one is Colorado’s oldest church?
Jones is going with St. James Church in Central City
This is Part II of a series of two where Linda Wommack and Linda Jones duke it out on their opinion of the oldest church in Colorado. Linda Jones tells us why she thinks St. James Methodist Church in Central City is the oldest. Wommack gave us her reasons for thinking Our Lady of Guadalupe is the oldest in the April 12-25 issue of the paper. What do you think?
St. James Methodist Church in Central City is the oldest church in Colorado still used as a church. Yes, the original church in Conejos was built earlier, but the exterior of St. James looks exactly the same in 2005 as in late 1871 when it was completed. The original church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is no longer visible, eclipsed by several handsome additions. The humble adobe church built in the late 1850s no longer exists. St. James is unarguably the oldest Protestant congregation (1859) and oldest Protestant church in the state.
As America expanded westward in the 19th century, the Methodist Church sent lay speakers and ministers to the edges of civilization, gaining a reputation as “the frontier church.” Two Methodist preachers, William Goode and Jacob Adriance, arrived in Central City in early July 1859, just a few weeks after John Gregory discovered gold on May 6 and began the “Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush.” (Goode would later say that he, too, was a miner, in a different way.)
Goode and Adriance preached at the intersection of Eureka, Main and Lawrence streets on the second weekend in July. An Eastern reporter named Libeus Barney witnessed this first sermon and wrote that the other corners on that intersection were occupied by those seeking life’s temporal pleasures: on one, a “grog shop” was dispensing whiskey, on one a “soiled dove” solicited business and on one, a faro game was being disputed.
Among the earliest members of the congregation were two of the city’s most respected citizens, Clara Brown and Henry Teller. Brown, a freed slave, earned her living washing miners’ clothes, yet she invested her money wisely in promising properties up and down the Front Range and was a major financial supporter of the church. Another enduring investment she made also bettered the human condition; she paid for passage westward for dozens of other freed slaves. She offered her home on Lawrence Street as a meeting place for the new congregation and the church met there for a few years until it outgrew the small space.
Teller was a respected attorney who would be elected one of Colorado’s first two Senators in 1876 when statehood was granted to Colorado Territory. Both his law office and the hotel he generously helped the town finance can still be seen on Eureka Street. Befitting his status as one of the wealthier residents of the town, he rented the first pew on the east side when the church was built. (Protestant churches in the 19th century typically rented their pews for additional income.)
At the beginning of 1863 the lots on Eureka Street were purchased and by February foundation work had begun. Meanwhile the congregation, numbering about 60, met in the courtroom of Washington Hall, space now occupied by the Gilpin County Arts Association gallery.
Teller was on the building committee formed in April 1864 and construction began. Shortly after, construction had to come to an abrupt stop. The completed walls had to be destroyed because the foundation was too shallow and the mortar was not holding. The locals nicknamed the site “the ruin.”
When George Adams came to minister in 1867, the congregation was in debt of $4,000. Adams was a persistent fundraiser and he secured a $3,000 loan from the church conference and solicited another $1,000 in gifts on a trip back East.
Then the wall of the building began to erect again.
When he returned to Central, he persuaded the young miners in his flock to donate labor for the construction, and by the end of 1868, the congregation moved services into the basement. The exterior of the church was completed by then and looks now just as it did then. The upper floor wasn’t finished until the loans were paid.
The St. James Library Association was situated in the basement of the church and remained “the largest and best library in town” with 550 volumes. Today the library looks just as it did in 1868, although it no longer loans books.
“The Richest Square Mile on Earth” rivaled Denver in the 1860s in population and influence. As Central City grew in size, the church’s membership also increased. In October 1871, the spectacular sanctuary on the second floor was nearly complete. The magnificent art glass windows were installed, and the walnut pews soon followed. In November 1868, services were held in the new sanctuary, but the actual dedication of this Methodist shrine was delayed until the next summer and was duly celebrated on July 21, 1872. The rare Steere & Sons pipe organ was installed in 1899.
Louis Carter, a lifelong Central City resident, wrote a series of columns for the Central City Weekly Register Call in the mid 20th century. These were collected into a book titled the same as his columns – Yesterday Was Another Day. These are his observations: “No church in America has a more interesting and illustrious background and no American church has offered greater music. St. James is the community. About 600 people walked through the door on a Sunday and the rest of the community came for dinners, programs and socials. The church did not stay at the corner of Eureka and County Line Streets but moved into the community and became a part of it. Its teachings were reflected in the homes, businesses and political life of the community.”
The current membership of St. James is approximately 105, with a high percentage of young families and children. A new pastor was welcomed on July 3, 2010, and has deep roots in Gilpin County. Dr. Robert Toll can trace his family to the founding of Tolland on the South Boulder Creek west of Rollinsville. Come celebrate the past, the present and the future with St. James at 123 Eureka St. on any Sunday at 10 a.m.