Not since March, when the coronavirus pandemic halted gatherings, had Patsy Adams walked into her sanctuary.
“Wow,” she recently remarked, stepping inside to find a Bible turned to a page of Psalms. The walls soared and curved into the shape of a ship. The pews faced the organ, adorned with the familiar message: “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.”
Adams’s voice cracked with emotion. “It’s hard to put into words actually.”
She was inside the first church built in Manitou Springs, where she has belonged longer than any other active member. Her grandkids are the fifth generation from the family to attend. Adams is a baby in the picture with her mom here, taken in 1944 as the First Congregational Church was continuing its mission in this mountain hamlet.
The church stands on a hillside, its humble bell tower and cobblestone presence intertwined with Manitou’s idyllic charm.
“This building, erected in 1880, is the oldest Congregational church building in Colorado,” reads the welcome sign in the front yard.
August marks the 140th anniversary of the church, which in recent years has come to simply call itself Manitou Community Church. It was first occupied Aug. 15, 1880, reported The Congregational News, which added: “Nothing can exceed the beauty of the mountain view from the door.”
The Rev. R.T. Cross is credited with starting the church. He started with a full crowd, The Gazette-Telegraph reported.
“The new church is very pleasant and comfortable,” read the newspaper, “and when finished, will be a building that Manitou may well be proud of.”
So it’s been.
Historically, Congregational churches were built as community hubs, “built large enough for the town to meet in,” said the Rev. Gaye Bosley-Mitchell. “Obviously, that’s not true here anymore.”
Manitou has outgrown the church since the late 19th century. The “healing” mineral springs made the town known, but vehicles would later boom, and other quirks of the “hippie Mayberry” would make Manitou an even more bustling tourist destination. The town has grown with the reputedly more conservative metro to the east.
Still, the church serves that original purpose, continuing as a civic meeting place.
“This interdependence between the city and the church,” Bosley-Mitchell said. “That’s why I think it’s still here.”
The church has housed book clubs. It’s been a base for the local Kiwanis Club. If it rains, the weekend band in town has been known to move in. Before embarking up Pikes Peak to shoot New Year’s Eve fireworks, the AdAmAn Club starts here for breakfast. Between battling 2012’s Waldo Canyon fire, firefighters rested here on the pews.
The seating was first “a little mixed in style,” read The Congregational News. It included pews, benches and wooden chairs colored black, brown and yellow. Lamps had been donated.
“May the light they give be the means of helping some darkened hearts to find spiritual light,” The News wrote.
People still find the light, adding to the congregation numbering about 130. Maribeth Peiniger joined the church in 2015 as she was hosting exercise classes in the fellowship hall.
“I knew nothing about Congregational churches,” she said. “One of the things that hit me is they don’t have a doctrine. Growing up Catholic, that was really different.”
Unlike other mainstream denominations, Congregationalism follows no higher, outside authority, such as a bishop or governing body. Manitou Community Church falls under the United Church of Christ, which lists a set of beliefs. That includes the belief that “each person is unique and valuable;” that “each of us is on a spiritual journey and that each of us is at a different stage of that journey;” and that the denomination “is called to be a united and uniting church.”
Bosley-Mitchell is particularly proud of another: to “work for nonviolent solutions to local, national and international problems.”
Though, when she came to Manitou from Florida three years ago, “a lot of (members) didn’t know what the United Church of Christ was,” she said. “They just knew this was the Manitou Community Church.”
And she loved it for that. She loved Manitou for the motto: “Keep Manitou weird.”
She loved how the late Charles Rockey, the locally beloved artist, would sit during worship and doodle on bulletins. Loved how a local dressed as Santa would bring the baby Jesus to the manger during Christmas Eve services.
At Manitou’s oldest church, Manitou feels like Manitou. That’s why Adams has kept coming since she was a baby.
“It feels like coming home,” she said.