Brian Kluth keeps mementos of the end of an era in Colorado Springs.

From his Denver home, he finds the file from Feb. 10, 2003: the inevitable news release.

“This year,” it starts, “it is being recommended we take a year off from hosting the Garden of the Gods Easter service ...”

Never has the sunrise ceremony returned to the city’s most majestic stage.

Kluth, senior pastor of First Evangelical Church from 1999-2009, and his congregation were lead organizers of what was billed the rite’s 83rd installment in 2002, the last. About 5,000 attended. That was down from the 20,000-plus known to flood the Garden in the mid-1900s, rain, snow or shine.

Logistics and costs had mounted.

“I have it here,” Kluth says, pulling up a spreadsheet. “I’m showing total expenses, $21,310. The No. 1 expense was $5,326 for buses. ... Police $500 ... $800 for the staff ... Stage was $2,000. Then we had advertising costs, too. The TV stations, that was another $4,300.”

The offering was nice — $9,800, he says. And the money burden wasn’t entirely on First Evangelical. Bigger churches in a coalition called The Net contributed $5,000, according to news reports.

But the forces at hand had overwhelmed. Parking and shuttling was “the biggest deterrent,” Kluth recalls. Historically praising in the Central Garden, park staff ordered the move to Rock Ledge Ranch along with the offsite transit.

“It’s just not user-friendly now,” a coordinator with New Life Church told The Gazette in 2001. “I know Garden of the Gods is delicate and gets a lot of use, but I think the city hurt that. The more you clamp down on something, the harder it becomes to accommodate people who want to come.”

Kluth remembers “pretty strong restrictions. And there are good reasons for that. I’m not saying they weren’t good reasons. But it was pretty challenging.”

Grainy pictures show the service’s former reverie: crowds of people in suits and dresses, Model Ts and horses gathered around the Garden’s highest monoliths known as North and South Gateway rocks. Those mornings left marks on the environment still seen today, says the park’s administrator, Bret Tennis.

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Cars packed Garden of the Gods for Easter sunrise services in the early years. The tradition, ended after 2002, is believed to have started in 1920. Photo courtesy Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

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On South Gateway, he connects holes to the choir stage that was bolted in. Vegetation still struggling to grow can’t be totally blamed on the services; everyday masses back then trampled the sensitive earth.

Tennis says he hasn’t caught wind of organized efforts to return Easter worship to the Garden, though the 400-car parking area established last summer at the main entrance begs the question: Could logistics be lessened?

It would “certainly help,” Tennis says. Still, he struggles to envision the worship that was.

“It wouldn’t be up to my personal opinion,” he says. “But I just don’t know. I don’t think I personally would be excited about it, just because of the impacts we’ve seen in the past.”

So another Easter sun rises without an official assembly in the Garden, almost exactly 100 years after the first was believed to have appeared. The “common consensus” is 1920, writes local historian Richard Gehling in an account capturing the romance of the day.

A 1946 article in The Cheyenne News previewed the service “in a church fashioned more than a million years ago by nature ... As the first shafts of sunlight are reflected from snow-capped Pikes Peak, a choir of 250 will lift their voices in a song that reverberates from pinnacle to pinnacle ...”

More than 20,000 were expected, the article said, “but millions more will hear the service in their homes, for it is carried over a nationwide radio hookup.”

The Colorado Springs Free Press in 1957 interviewed the originator, the Rev. Albert W. Luce, who recalled leaving his Model T at home — 13 cents a gallon for gas, after all — and riding his bike to the Garden. He would meditate there.

“It was during one such period of meditation that he thought of a particular passage in the Gospel,” the article read. “It stated, ‘Now in the place where He was crucified there was a Garden. There they lay Jesus.’”

What better place to celebrate Easter? Luce thought.

What better place? the last organizer thought many decades later.

“The Scripture says, ‘I lift my eyes to the hills, my help comes from the Lord,’” Kluth says. “You got the whole idea of the resurrection. The sun hitting the rocks. ... Yeah, it was moving. A very moving time.”

Seth is a features writer at The Gazette, covering the outdoors and the people and places that make Colorado colorful.

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