St Paul Lutheran & Catholic Community of Faith, Denver, Colorado, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul Lutheran & Catholic Community of Faith
Location: Denver, Colorado, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 October 2016, 10:30am

The building

The cornerstone was laid in 1925, and construction was completed in 1926. It was built in a Gothic Revival style by the architectural firm of Richter & Eiler, of Reading, Pennsylvania, who specialized in designing Lutheran churches. The exterior is dark red brick. There is a vaulted ceiling and balcony. The stained glass above the original altar shows the risen Christ greeting Mary Magdalene; the rear window depicts the Ascension. Windows in the nave are non-representational. The windows are by the George Hardy Payne studio of Paterson, New Jersey, whose founder had started as a glass painter for Clayton & Bell in London. There were renovations in 1963 (adding a chapel and classrooms) and 1982. A columbarium was added in 1992 on the south wall of the courtyard. The church is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The church

The parish began in 1884 as St Paul's English Evangelical Lutheran Church. They now describe themselves as "an open, affirming, and diverse community of faith representing two Christian traditions, that of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. Each tradition maintains and honors its own heritage, and each worships according to its own liturgical practices." There are three services each weekend: a Catholic mass on Saturday evening and two Lutheran masses on Sunday morning. The music program is quite fine.

The neighborhood

Denver is often described as the Mile High City, as its elevation above sea level is almost exactly a mile. It's a bustling, growing city, with major league sports (hockey, baseball, and football), and a professional symphony orchestra and opera company. Saint Paul's is an inner-city parish, roughly two blocks from the Colorado State Capitol. Within walking distance are tall office buildings, elegant older homes, apartments, small businesses, and a whole array of restaurants.

The cast

The Revd Dr Dena Williams preached and presided at the eucharist. Saint Paul's cantor, Mark Alan Filbert, directed the choir and was organist. The deacon was Lori Eastman, and Janice Hoffman was bread baker. Pastor Williams, a member of the congregation, is a retired Lutheran pastor who currently manages Edens Edge, a website offering "a variety of inexpensive resources to encourage, inspire, and guide." (Not to be confused with the country music group of the same name.) She was filling in for Saint Paul's Lutheran co-pastor, who had recently retired.

What was the name of the service?

Lutheran Mass.

How full was the building?

In a building that can seat approximately 500 (including the balcony), there were 55-60 present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I noticed bulletins on a table near the rear of the church, and picked up one that I saw on further inspection was for the 8.00 service. I asked Pastor Williams, who was standing nearby, if the bulletin was the same for both services. She replied "No" and found me a bulletin for the 10.30 service. She welcomed me, and we conversed briefly.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir rehearsed until pretty close to the service's beginning. Otherwise, quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." (Said as the Sign of the Cross was made.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The pews were full of all sorts of things: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Catholic Gather hymnal, and copies of The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. But everything we needed was in a carefully-prepared service leaflet. As their website states: "You won't have to worry about juggling hymnals or prayer books." The liturgy was essentially from the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (though, in another ecumenical touch, the metrical psalm was from the Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ, originally opus 4501, dating from the 1920s, of the MP Moller Pipe Organ Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, and rebuilt by Moller in 1984 as opus R-154.

Did anything distract you?

Only all those books in the pews.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A formal evangelical-catholic liturgy. The deacon was vested in deacon's stole and read the first two readings, led the offertory and post-communion prayers, and assisted in the distribution of communion. We had real bread (which was quite delicious). We received communion standing; we could receive the wine by intinction or by drinking from the chalice. Saint Paul's has no kneelers; we stood for the eucharistic prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Pastor Williams is a very effective public speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel for the day was Luke 18:9-14, about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. Pastor Williams began by looking at the word "dichotomy," two things that are entirely different, which describes the two men's prayers. Our election of the President this year is another dichotomy, one that she is sick to death of. She noted the dichotomy of the Church in the year 1000: Eastern and Western, representing two expressions of the one Church. The two churches split in 1054 over two issues: leavened vs unleavened bread in the eucharist, and the inclusion of the word Filioque ("and the Son," referring to the Persons from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds) in the Nicene Creed. But were these the real issues? Or were they masking the usual conflicts over power, money, and control? As an aside, she noted that whenever she hears a complaint about a hymn chosen for Sunday worship, she just wants to say, "It's only three minutes! Get over it." She then noted the recent retirement of Saint Paul's Lutheran co-pastor and realized that many in the congregation were feeling some anxiety, and perhaps a fear of the unknown as the community faces a new chapter in its life. She concluded by noting that on Reformation Sunday the community would worship together at one service. They would not be "celebrating" the Reformation or the divisions that the Reformation left the Western church with, but would recall the Reformation, and celebrate the unity of Catholic and Lutheran to which the parish witnesses.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Beautiful music supporting a carefully-prepared liturgy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Seeing such a small congregation at this beautiful and historic church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I remained in my pew to listen to the organ recessional, American composer, organist, and choir director Robert J. Powell's Postlude on Kingsfold (a hymn to the tune of Kingsfold had been sung earlier). Then the woman who had been sitting in the pew in front of me introduced herself and we chatted briefly. As I was exiting, Pastor Williams made a point of coming over and talking further; we had a nice chat about Saint Paul's unique situation, and another Lutheran/Catholic joint parish in Oregon, which I have also visited. She was most welcoming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – This averages my reaction and Materfamilias' reaction when I described the church to her (she did not attend). As the Lutheran in the family, I would be quite comfortable with this parish. The Catholic half of the family was not completely sure; she didn't know if she would be comfortable with a Catholic community that may not be in full communion with the Vatican, although she didn't rule out simply becoming Lutheran in a parish with recognizably Catholic liturgy. She would have to see. And, at any rate, a move to Denver is not likely in the foreseeable future, so it remains a moot question.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it did.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The warm greeting extended by this congregation.

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