Colorado Springs at 150 years | How churches helped shape the city of Colorado Springs | Premium
Editor’s note: This July, as Colorado Springs gears up for its 150th birthday on the 31st, The Gazette has prepared a series of articles on the history of our city. Check back for fascinating glimpses into the people and events that have shaped Colorado Springs into the landmark it is today.
Churches and faith communities have played a pivotal role in shaping Colorado Springs, from its formative roots in the mid-1800s into the 21st century.
“Colorado Springs, since its founding, has always held religious goals and values high in its growth and development, but, of course, those have changed with the times and the people,” said Katherine Scott Sturdevant, a history professor at Pikes Peak Community College.
Out of the Wild West that made some gold prospectors millionaires and helped treat tuberculosis patients needing fresh mountain air came Catholic nuns tending to injured railroad workers and settlers building a city out of dry semi-arid desert land.
The sisters worked to help open the city’s first hospital, St. Francis Health Center, in 1887. Another group of Catholic nuns entered the medical scene in 1893, taking over the Glockner Tuberculosis Sanitorium, the current site of Penrose Hospital.
In addition to Colorado Springs being a “city of trees,” founder Brig. Gen. William Jackson Palmer wanted it to be a “city of churches,” Sturdevant said.
Palmer and his Colorado Springs Company he formed in 1871 with business partner Dr. William Bell donated lots to build most of the churches in the historic downtown, said John Harner, a professor in the geography and environmental studies department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“This fit in with his vision to create an upstanding, attractive community,” he said.
Palmer’s philanthropy also matched his temperance clause that made liquor forbidden, in an attempt to protect property values and attract investors, Harner said.
Palmer, a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient for his leadership in battle, was the product of a Quaker upbringing in Delaware, Sturdevant noted.
“Although he might not have been publicly active in the church like most Quakers, he remained influenced by its basic beliefs,” she said. Those included equality and pacifism.
“Young Palmer was a passionate abolitionist who argued at his Philadelphia Friends Meeting and with his parents when he determined that fighting in the Civil War to end slavery was more appropriate than acting only on pacifism,” Sturdevant said.
The United States was in a period of fighting wars and undergoing political “polarization” when developers built the Pikes Peak region, Sturdevant said.
In Colorado Springs, Palmer gave up Quaker meetings and shifted to being involved with other Protestant churches.
“Like many Quakers, he exerted the values of Quaker practice in his utopian community — ‘moral’ behavior, racial equality and quality, integrated public education,” Sturdevant said.
Many settlers subscribed to moral reform and social experimentation from the Second Great Awakening, she said.
“Those ‘awakened’ folks had joined forces with Quaker social activists to fight against slavery and for racial and women’s equal rights,” she said. “They left a trail as they made their marks.”
Palmer also wanted Colorado Springs to become known as a college town, Sturdevant said, with the first college — Colorado College — being established in 1874 with the help of the Congregational Church. The school no longer holds that affiliation.
The generous land donations from Palmer and Bell meant Colorado had “broad representation from most mainstream denominations early on, including African American churches,” Harner said.
The first Black congregation, Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was erected in 1875 at 128 Pueblo Avenue, at Weber Street.
St. John’s Baptist Church opened three years later, at Pueblo Avenue and East Cimarron Street.
The churches were centered in one of the largest Black communities in the state, with Payne Chapel serving from 1921 to the mid-1930s as the city’s headquarters for the Universal Negro Improvement Association empowerment movement, according to historical reports.
A “self-consciously benevolent relationship” between Black and white churches existed at the time, Sturdevant said.
In 1876, Payne Chapel AME Church celebrated the anniversary of emancipation of slaves in the West Indies with a picnic attended by “colored” and white people, newspaper accounts detail.
Also, the AME Church had “especially appealing Thanksgiving and Christmas social events each year in which everyone was welcome,” an article reads.
“When the newspaper lauded how intelligent and progressive Colorado Springs citizens were, it made a point of saying that the citizens of color also were intelligent and progressive,” Sturdevant said.
Other historical downtown churches include:
• First United Methodist Church, founded in 1871
• First Baptist Church, founded 1872, when Colorado Springs had 300 residents
• First Presbyterian founded in 1872, 16 days before Colorado Springs filed for incorporation in the Colorado territory
• Grace and St. Stephens Episcopal Church, founded 1872 and completed in 1926
• First Congregational Church, founded in 1874
• St. George’s Anglican Church, constructed in 1874 and previously used by Grace Episcopal Church
• St. Mary’s Cathedral, which opened 1891
• Chadbourn Gospel Mission or Chadbourn Spanish Gospel Mission, founded in 1930 to provide religious and educational support to the Mexican community in the Conejos District that worked on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, according to the Colorado Register of Historic Places
Alongside Christian families, early Jewish settlers gravitated to the town of Colorado City shortly after its founding in 1859, in the area now known as Old Colorado City.
Within a decade, they became real estate developers, hoteliers, stagecoach operators, city trustees and cattle ranchers, according to a historical look at the Jewish community published in the Intermountain Jewish News.
Homes hosted the first religious services, such as an 1895 memorial service and High Holy Day services later that year, say accounts by Perry B. Bach, author of “Glimpses at Our History: Temple Shalom’s 40-year Anniversary & Colorado Springs Jewish Community 110 Years.”
In 1900, 21 Jewish people donated money to purchase a Torah scroll and organize the first congregation, the Orthodox Kehilla of Colorado Springs.
The evolution of values-based politics
As the city grew, post-World War II, military installations began a march toward continuing the founders’ ethical mindset.
Through the 1980s, churches played a strong role in the community culture but not politics, Harner said.
Values-based politics began defining the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as economic development efforts to attract evangelical Christian organizations to Colorado Springs proved successful.
“There was a desire to have ‘clean’ industry that would not ‘pollute’ us environmentally or morally — thus damaging our appeal,” Sturdevant said.
“There was ambition to be the Christian radio capital of the world, the Bible publishing capital of the world, and Focus on the Family’s arrival was highly anticipated.”
Colorado Springs residents originated a statewide 1992 ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to prevent protected status based on sexuality. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the approved ballot measure, and it never became law.
The prolific rise of fundamentalist religious ministries in Colorado Springs — more than 30 organizations arrived between 1988 and 1993 — led the city to become known as the “Vatican of evangelical Christianity” by some and the “evangelical capital” of the nation by others.
Missionary and evangelical outreach groups, ministry training, printing and video production, radio broadcasts, orphan support, Christian publishing and related supportive industries flocked to Colorado Springs.
Among those headquartered here: Focus on the Family, Biblica (formerly International Bible Society), Reach Beyond (HCJB World Radio), Every Home for Christ, OC International, Mission of Mercy, Christian Camping International, Missionary Internship, Inc., Young Life, Compassion International, The Navigators and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which now is leaving, saying the cost of living is too high for its employees.
The political power of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a multimedia organization, and Ted Haggard, founder of New Life Church, which today has more than 10,000 members, was strong, Harner said.
“Both were national leaders of the Christian Right, with major influence in the Republican Party,” he said.
After rumors about Haggard’s sexuality surfaced, he admitted on national television to having an inappropriate relationship with a male volunteer and doing drugs.
Haggard’s “fall from grace” resulted in the evangelical community engaging in “some much-needed introspection and withdrawing from aggressively pushing their agenda in the political sphere,” Harner said.
Today the evangelical Christian community is still a major player in the local economy, he said, with the concentration of Christian organizations creating savings through sharing resources, labor expertise and a supportive community.
New evangelical churches continue to open in Colorado Springs and others have expanded. The community is more diversified than ever, historians say, but its roots continue to leave a “lasting legacy,” Harner said.