Though Church members here are observing a 100-year anniversary, the first LDS presence in Colorado actually predates the settlement of the Salt Lake Valley 150 years ago.
The history of the Church in what is known locally as the "Front Range" of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado is recounted in A Century of Saints, a new book written by Twila Bird, under the auspices of the Church's Front Range Centennial Committee.In late 1846, 14 convert families from the Tombigbee Branch of the Church in Monroe, County, Miss., established a winter colony along the Arkansas River near Fort Pueblo.
Traveling the Oregon Trail from Independence, Mo., they had expected to intercept Brigham Young and the main company of pioneers. But when they learned the main group had been delayed and had settled Winter Quarters on the Missouri River, the Mississippi Saints detoured 300 miles to the south along the Trapper's Trail to Fort Pueblo to await the coming of the main body of the Church.
Before winter that year, three separate sick detachments from the Mormon Battalion, along with women and children attached to the battalion, joined the Mississippi Saints at Fort Pueblo. The following summer, the group, now totaling nearly 300, retraced the Trapper's Trail northward, passing through present-day Colorado Springs and Denver, and joined Brigham Young and his followers at Fort Laramie. The entire group then entered the Salt Lake Valley.
In 1878, LDS converts from the Southern States and colonizers sent by the Church from Utah settled the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.
But not until 1896 was a mission established in Colorado. On Dec. 14, Elder John W. Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve, son of the Church president, was sent with authority to organize the mission. On Jan. 3 of the following year, he and seven missionaries organized the first branch of the Church in Denver, which began holding services in Martine's Dance Hall.
The Denver Stake was created June 30, 1940, with boundaries reaching from Laramie to Pueblo along the Front Range, roughly the area covered by the old Trapper's Trail. Today, almost 67,000 Church members live in the area encompassed by that stake, in 22 stakes, with almost 200 wards and branches in more than 80 meetinghouses.
The first meetinghouse in Denver, dedicated March 13, 1904, and used until 1918, still stands at 622 W. 6th Avenue. It was purchased by the Catholic Church across the street, then sold, and has been used by a series of community service organizations since then.
Another building still standing with significance to Church members in Denver is the stately mansion built in 1905 by Adolph J. Zang, a wealthy brewer, and purchased by the Church in 1950 as a mission home. As a member of the Western States Mission presidency, Elder Hugh W. Pinnock was one of the missionaries to live in the mansion. It was sold by the Church in 1977, and today is in the United States Registry of Historic Places.
Among the long-time residents in the original Denver Stake are Virgil and Allean Coleman, members of the original Englewood Branch in the suburb by that name south of Denver. The Colemans were living there when the branch was organized in 1923, and still live in the present Englewood Ward.
"Allean remembers moving here as a child from the South in 1920," Sister Bird said. "A group of Tennessee converts came all together. They were relatives mostly. Some came by train, and some by flatbed truck and some came even in wagons, within a two- or three-year span. They all moved to the same area in Englewood. They called the location Tennessee Hill. The building they built is still there, used as an apartment building now."
Sister Coleman remembered sitting in the meetinghouse that began as a basement-only building. "We had home-made benches," she said. "For the sacrament we didn't have paper cups or a tray, so we used a plate and we used one big, tall tumbler. When the water was passed, we each took a sip of water and passed it on. But we were all related, so it didn't make a really big difference."
Beloved among Front Range Church members are Forrest and Mary Jensen, who were present the day the Denver Stake was organized in 1940. He was made an elders quorum president that day, and in 1950 was the contractor for the construction of the first Denver Stake Center. He was president of the Denver temple from 1992 to 1995.
When interviewed by Sister Bird for the history, the Jensens remembered a Gold and Green Ball they attended on one occasion. Lacking time for a haircut, he received a quick one from a neighbor. The haircut was so bad, Mary filled in the nicks with mascara. At the dance, as the evening wore on and the temperature grew warmer, the mascara began to run down on his white shirt.
Today, Brother Jensen is a patriarch in the Littleton Colorado Stake. With some amusement, he told the Church News of an occasion recently when some youth were in their home. He overheard one of the boys, who had received a patriarchal blessing, telling his friend in hushed tones about the patriarch's "blessing room," and filling in details such as, "You sit right there as he gives the blessing."
Through the years, faithful members such as the Colemans and the Jensens have built a strong foundation on which to expand. As front-range Church members let their light shine, others are noticing and are being led to glorify God.
One such person is Fred Schaffer, formerly a minister in a religious denomination in which the misconception is widely promulgated that Latter-day Saints are not Christian.
"I married into a strong Mormon family," he said. "I experienced incredible dissonance between what I had been taught and what I observed in this family. I had believed Mormonism was of the devil, yet I saw incredible fruit from this wonderful family. When I started to read the Book of Mormon, I saw Jesus Christ on every page. I was baptized, and now, a year and a half later, here I am a spokesman for the Church."
He is the Denver North Stake public affairs director, and delights in telling his friends in a local ministerial alliance that he believes in the same Jesus Christ he always did. "I just know more about Him now."
Southeast of downtown Denver, in the area of Smokey Hill and Buckley roads, Pres. Randy D. Funk of the Arapahoe stake points out new housing developments and a high school under construction and speaks of the recent acquisition of land for an LDS seminary building. He sees the filling in of open spaces in the shadow of the Rockies as an opportunity to invite newcomers to come unto Christ.
It is a hope in line with the theme selected for the centennial: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings." (Isa. 52:7.)