St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral (1350 Washington Street, Denver) was the first Episcopal congregation in Colorado and serves as the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. The 1911 cathedral is a fine example of the Late English Gothic style, and the entire cathedral complex occupies a full block in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The church is also notable for its magnificent stained-glass windows, its outstanding choir, and its social activism.
Early Denver Episcopalians
St. John’s was founded in 1860 by Reverend John H. Kehler, who initially held services in a dirt-floored log cabin and then in the Criterion Saloon and the Apollo Hall Theater. In 1861 Kehler’s congregation was officially called, as it still is, St. John’s Church in the Wilderness, the nearest Episcopal church being hundreds of miles away. Early parish records reflect Denver’s rough-and-tumble beginnings: Of the first twelve burial services Kehler conducted, five of the deceased had been shot, two were executed for murder, one shot himself, and one died of alcoholism, leaving only three to die of “natural causes.”
As time passed, the congregation grew, and in 1862 it purchased a small church abandoned by Southern Methodists at Fourteenth and Arapahoe Streets. The Episcopalians added a sagging canvas ceiling to keep it dry, various frame additions, and a bell tower.
The First Cathedral
In 1869 Denver became part of the Episcopal Mission District of the Northwest, which included Colorado, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. In 1890 the Diocese of Colorado was created with its own bishop. By that time, Denver had already built a grand church that would serve as the diocesan cathedral. It was largely the work of Reverend Henry Martyn Hart, a young cleric from suburban London. Hart had first come west to hunt buffalo, and when he visited Denver, he was asked to preach at St. John’s. After turning down repeated requests to take charge at St. John’s, Hart finally agreed in 1879. He arrived with a wife, six children, a governess, two maids, and a strong vision that would guide St. John’s for forty-two years.
Working with the missionary (later diocesan) bishop of Colorado, John Franklin Spalding, Hart had architects Lloyd & Pearce of Detroit design a large red-brick, Romanesque-style church at the intersection of Twentieth and Welton Streets. Bishop Spalding laid the cornerstone on September 21, 1880. The cathedral shared the site with Matthews Hall (a theological school where the bishop lived), Jarvis Hall school for boys, a cottage for the principal, a gymnasium, and a deanery. The church seated 860 and boasted ladies’, boys’, and men’s choirs. The elaborate interior included an iron-and-brass rood screen separating the nave from the choir and chancel, and an oak reredos behind the altar with thirteen carved figures from Oberammergau, Germany.
A fire in 1903 completely destroyed the cathedral, with only the reredos, pulpit, rood screen, baptismal fount, and eleven stained-glass windows surviving. Hart personally rescued the carved reredos figures. Despite a $1,000 reward, the arsonist was never caught.
After the fire, the St. John’s congregation found temporary homes in Central Presbyterian Church and Temple Emanuel. It also began planning for a new and larger cathedral. From eighteen competing architects, St. John’s selected a top New York architectural firm, Tracy & Swartwout. They designed a new cathedral to occupy most of the block bounded by East Fourteenth and Thirteenth Avenues and Washington and Clarkson Streets in the upscale residential neighborhood of Capitol Hill. (Not until 1921 would St. John’s buy the remaining six lots to complete the block.) Just east of the site lay Wolfe Hall, the city’s Episcopal girls’ school, since demolished to build Morey Middle School. To provide temporary quarters for services and offices, Tracy & Swartwout planned a white-brick, Romanesque-style chapter house on Clarkson Street facing Wolfe Hall.
For the cathedral itself, Tracy & Swartwout employed the Late English Gothic Revival style. Building costs soon threatened to exceed the $125,000 limit, so the architects went back to the drawing board. Revised plans replaced the original Colorado Yule marble exterior with oolite limestone from Bedford, Indiana. Two transepts giving the cathedral a cruciform shape and a tall central tower were dropped. Work began in 1905.
St. John’s Cathedral
St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral was finally completed in 1911. Inside, the center aisle is 185 feet long and 65 feet high. The Gothic style was blended with some contemporary features, such as a center bay with a soaring stained-glass window between twin hundred-foot-high entry towers.
The cathedral’s most brilliant fixtures are its exquisitely detailed stained-glass windows, which constitute a 100-year collection of masterworks, starting with twelve by the Edward Frampton Studio in England (eleven of which were saved from the 1903 fire). Most of the west-side windows depict Old Testament sins, while the east side shows New Testament scenes and virtues. The Frampton Studio’s masterpiece, the Last Judgment, fills the grand arched windows over the entry doors. Later work includes equally fine stained glass from Frampton, the Charles Connick studio in Boston, and the modern Colorado artist Edgar Britton. Denver’s own Watkins Studios, headed by eighth-generation stained-glass maker Philip Watkins, has done much of the repair, replacement, and maintenance work.
St. John’s has always prided itself on fine music. A grand Kimball organ was given to the cathedral in 1938 and is one of its greatest treasures, affectionately known as “Bertha.” The organ’s 5,961 handmade pipes range from thirty-two feet to eighteen inches in height and from eighteen inches to pencil shape in diameter. Among many notable choirmasters and organists was Englishman Henry Houseley, who also played the organ at Temple Emanuel and founded the first Denver Symphony. His ashes are buried under the floor beneath the choir. Another musical renaissance came when Don Pearson became organist and choir director in 1981. He improved the children’s choir, augmented the concert series, started a Friends of Music support group, and launched new programs such as Music with Lunch. Pearson was honored as Colorado Conductor of the Year, and St. John’s Choir became one of the country’s most recorded.
Alterations and Additions
Over the years, many additions have been made to the cathedral, including classrooms, choir rooms, offices, meeting rooms, a kitchen, a library, and St. Francis Chapel for Children. The most notable addition, St. Martin’s Chapel, was added in 1927, with a design by Burnham and Merrill Hoyt. St. Martin’s dominant ornament is a Madonna and Child reredos by celebrated Denver artist Arnold Rönnebeck, then head of the Denver Art Museum.
St. Francis Chapel and the Paul Roberts Education and Music Building were added in 1957 on the site of the original chapter house. Later, the cathedral expanded its grounds to include Cathedral Square North and Dominick Park on the north side of Fourteenth Avenue, which provided additional parking. All Souls’ Walk, a columbarium for funerary remains, was added in 1966 on the northeast side of the church. The Diocesan Center, a decidedly modern building, went up in 1975 at the southwest corner of the cathedral’s block.
During the 1980s, under the direction of Dean Donald McPhail, St. John’s adopted “high church” ways with elaborate vestments, rituals, musical chants, and incense (“bells and smells”). Traditionalists further rejoiced in June 1982, when Princess Anne worshipped at the cathedral. The 1980s “high church” era helped roughly double Sunday worshippers from 500 to 1,000 and increased the paid staff from 13 to 22.
As early as the 1860s, St. John’s Ladies of the Cathedral Aid Society did charitable work. The name changed to the Women of St. John’s in 1960, but the charity continued. In 1887 Hart joined Monsignor William J. O’Ryan of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church, Reverend Myron Reed of the First Congregational Church, and Rabbi William S. Friedman of Temple Emanuel to form the Denver Charity Organization Society. That consolidated charity evolved into today’s United Way.
In more recent decades, the cathedral has been active in housing the homeless and in LGBT rights. Dean Paul Roberts (1936–57) was especially noted for his pacifism and work with Indigenous Americans, Japanese Americans, women, and children. Mayor Quigg Newton appointed him head of Denver’s Survey Commission on Human Relations. During the 1960s, Canon Russell Nakata spearheaded the Cathedral Social Services Committee, which gave emergency aid to as many as 900 individuals a week. Canon Nakata’s work on housing led Mayor William H. “Bill” McNichols, Jr., to appoint him to the Denver Housing Authority, which he chaired for nine years. During the 1970s and 1980s, St. John’s welcomed its first Japanese, Indigenous, and female clergy, and in 1981 it celebrated the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Colorado.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21, when many homeless Denverites camped on the cathedral grounds, clergy reached out to the urban campers, and parishioners helped clean up the area. One night a week, the Women’s Homeless Initiative took in homeless women, gave them a hot meal, and allowed them to spend a night in Dagwell Hall. (Other local churches covered the rest of the week.)
Even in normal times, the cathedral focuses on assisting the homeless. The grounds are home to Metro Caring’s community gardens, and the cathedral runs the nearby Network Coffee House, which offers help and hot showers. The cathedral also built, owns, and operates the St. Francis Apartments to provide people with housing and counseling.
To honor St. John’s architectural, charitable, and historical contributions to Denver and the Rocky Mountain region, the cathedral was named one of Denver’s first official landmarks in 1968 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.