Church rises from 'ashes' of old Syn nightclub

EMILY WILKINS Updated: August 7, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: August 7, 2011

They sat in plastic chairs amid the sawdust and unfinished floorboards, chipped paint and bare plaster. All were in their Sunday best, about 200 people listening to the first prayer said in the new home of St. George’s Anglican Church.

“Drive from this place those demons that have possessed its inhabitants,” boomed the voice of the Rev. Don Armstrong. “Restore this place to its former sanctity and purpose.”

There was a bit of irony to Armstrong’s prayer, a double-meaning to both building and man.

In 2005, the building at 217 E. Pikes Peak Ave., erected as an Episcopal church in 1873, was resurrected as Club Eden, a nightclub. In 2006, Armstrong, then the rector of Grace and St. Stephens Episcopal Church, was placed on leave by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. The group later claimed he embezzled $392,000 in church funds, and years of legal action followed.

Armstrong left the Episcopal church and formed St. George’s, and for two years has rented space at the former Renaissance Academy to hold Sunday mass.

During that time, Club Eden became 13 Pure nightclub and then Syn Nightclub & Bistro. But whatever the name, the club gained notoriety for problems with under-age drinking and violence.

In February, Armstrong was sentenced to four years’ probation for misdemeanor theft, which runs concurrent with a four-year sentence for a felony theft charge.

One month later, an altercation involving about 75 to 100 people led to Syn Nightclub losing its liquor license.

The building’s owners put it on the market, and former sinner found former Syn. Two weeks ago, after a long search for a permanent home, St. George’s Anglican Church bought the church-turned-nightclub for $975,000.

“We’re coming out of the wildness,” said St. George’s emeritus senior warden and project manager Jon Wroblewski. “Finding the (building) where it originally started, it’s kind of amazing.”

The parallel histories of church building and church group have not been lost on Armstrong. Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, he made the message clear in his sermon at Sunday’s 9 a.m. mass.

“We are here this morning as a testament to the faithfulness of God,” Armstrong said. “Neither tribulation nor distress or persecution can separate us from God.”

Nor could the church’s half-finished state. Sunday’s three masses were said in the intended church hall, the only room to pass a fire marshal’s inspection.

No matter, said Wroblewski, the congregation hasn’t missed a mass since it broke away from Grace and St. Stephens.

Renovations will continue, he said. A wall along the street in front of the church already has been removed and dust flew late last week as a team of construction workers removed all signs of Syn.

Melissa Willenbrock, her father, and her 3-year-old son, Jacob, wandered through the debris Thursday as sunlight poured through stained glass windows.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Willenbrock said.

Willenbrock grew up in Grace and St. Stephens. Armstrong ministered her wedding and baptized her son. But Jacob has never known a church not in limbo, and Willenbrock is excited at the permanence the building offers.

“To bring my son back here and have the same tradition with the same people,” she said. “It means a lot to have a foundation, somewhere he knows he can come back to.”

The community within St. George’s is undeniable. Robert Herrell, who breathes with help of an oxygen tank, said someone will call his home when he misses a Sunday service to ensure he is OK.

When a parishioner sneezed Sunday, half the congregation immediately said “Bless you.”

The people of St. George’s say the past five years have taught them a lot about faith, the community and themselves.

“The main thing we learned is the church is not a building,” said Emily Kline, a parish member since 1987. “It’s a group of people committed to God.”

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