LOOK: Denver’s oldest church and the choir that is family

Mitchell directs her crew with sizable pep and vigor. The choir’s song lineup changes from one service to another, and it’s her energetic leadership that keeps this tight-knit group on point all night long.

The grand candle-lit end to the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
The grand candle-lit end to the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
The grand candle-lit end to the 7 p.m. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

The massive sanctuary at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Denver was packed beyond capacity for the 7 p.m. service on Christmas Eve. Despite the fact that there’s only seats for about 1,150 people, the official count had the room at 1,171, and it was just one of five services rolling through the old halls Saturday.

At 6:15 p.m., downstairs, beneath what Senior Pastor Mike Dent calls “God’s carpet,” members of the choir filled a backstage area for a quick rehearsal. At the head of the group, standing on a pedestal to defy her five-foot stature, was Judith Mitchell, the church’s music director and sometimes-soloist.

Music Director Judith Mitchell conducts the choir in a quick rehearsal before the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Music Director Judith Mitchell conducts the choir in a quick rehearsal before the 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

Mitchell directs her crew with sizable pep and vigor. The choir’s song lineup changes from one service to another, and it’s her energetic leadership that keeps this tight-knit group on point all night long.

Trinity bills itself as Denver’s oldest church. Mitchell said the congregation was founded in 1859 when two clergymen came from Kansas to set up shop in gold country.

“There were 30 saloons here,” she said of Denver, “and that was it.”

The grand candle-lit end to the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Parishioners light candles at the front of the sanctuary. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

One of those two founders had a “really good singing voice,” she said, a fact that may have influenced the sanctuary’s design.

“Part of the legacy is that the church was built both as a concert venue and as a space for worship,” Mitchell said.

Senior pastor Mike Dent leads the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Senior pastor Mike Dent leads the 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

The sanctuary where the Christmas Eve services were held this year was first used almost exactly 128 years ago. While it’s commonly said around here that Christmas Eve was its first use, Mitchell knows that it was actually Dec. 23 when the church opened its doors to parishioners.

There’s no wonder that this church made for music and founded on Christmas was packed to the gills after all these years.

Master Organist Norm Sutphin at the keys. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016, their 152nd anniversary. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Master Organist Norm Sutphin at the church’s original keys, which were installed in 1888. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)
A choir, a family.

As Mitchell wrapped up her quick rehearsal, she quieted the room for a quick announcement. One of their ranks would not be able to make it for a few weeks. His daughter had died, and though she was middle-aged herself, Mitchell said, no parent should have to bury their children.

There was an audible gasp in the room that had been filled with loud jubilation moments earlier. The choir singers bowed their heads as Mitchell prayed for the singer and his family. It’s in moments like these that the true strength of Mitchell’s choir reveals itself.

Music Director Judith Mitchell leads the choir in a prayer for a member whose daughter has just passed away. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Music Director Judith Mitchell leads the choir in a prayer for a member whose daughter has just passed away. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

The choir members are lawyers, retirees and at least one massage therapist who, a couple times a week, come together as a kind of family. They feel the struggle of their missing member and will undoubtedly be a part of his recovery.

And this is not the first time this group has come together for one of their own. Mitchell was in a car accident in 2013 that ultimately resulted in her husband’s death. While she was in recovery, her choir continued to practice and perform.

“It was our commitment to carry on how she would want us to,” said former choir president Galen Colton. “It was an emotional time for everyone. We’re very close to her.”

When you meet Mitchell it’s hard to imagine anything so terrible could have happened to her. The group that she directs with so much energy, it seems, has also returned to her some of its spirit.

The music this group makes, Mitchell said, expresses something that a sermon can’t. It’s something that “connects us in ways that our logical thought processes may not.” It’s an opportunity “to experience something greater than yourself, of which you are a part.”

Hank Echert (left) and Tom Campman shake hands before the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Hank Echert (left) and Tom Campman shake hands before the 7 p.m. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

In a divisive political year, the choir has also served to unite a congregation who might otherwise be at odds, Mitchell said. During the Wednesday night church service after the election “the music was profound,” she said. “It was filling in the spaces between us.”

While this church may already be a place of reconciliation for some, there’s a legacy of healing that emanates every week from the choir loft.

Mitchell said about her group, “if you show up and you’re present, extraordinary things happen.”

Full disclosure, I’m related to Franz Gruber, who wrote the tune to “Silent Night” on the guitar because the church organ was broken.

The 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
The 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)
Don peterson (left) and Dave Licko chat before the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Don Peterson (left) and Dave Licko chat before the 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)
The original organ. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016, their 152nd anniversary. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
The original organ installed at Trinity United Methodist Church. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)
The grand candle-lit end to the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
The grand candle-lit end to the 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)
Senior pastor Mike Dent lights candles during the 7 P.M. service. Christmas Eve at Trinity United Methodist Church, 2016. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite) christmas eve; holidays; downtown; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Senior pastor Mike Dent lights candles during the 7 p.m. service. (Kevin J.Beaty/Denverite)

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video.