Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

The Victorian structure of red brick and pitched roofs was completed in 1887. Ornately carved and polished wooden beams were imported from Germany and installed to lead the congregation's eyes ever upward toward heaven. Fine leaded stained-glass windows were also brought in from the Old Country. Above the main entrances to the church, a narrow steeple pointed skyward, housing a bell cast in Philadelphia whose sound carried through the neighborhood blossoming around it. Next door to the church was built a small parsonage with a pleasant porch from which the pastor's family could watch the comings and goings along California Street.

For its first twenty years at that location, the membership of the church kept growing. But as Denver expanded and families moved to promising outlying areas, other German Methodist churches were established close to their new homes, pulling the congregation in all directions.

By 1910, when the new pastor, William Rudolph Velte, arrived with his wife, Anna, and two small children--Willis, five, and Marguerite, two--attendance was already on the downswing. Born in Germany in 1877, Velte had been sent to the United States when he was twelve to live with an uncle after his mother died. Friendly and outgoing, he wanted to be a minister from an early age. But he was poor and had to work hard in order to attend Central Wesleyan College, a Methodist school in Warrenton, Missouri. He arrived there at the turn of the century with only one pair of pants, which had come from a missionary barrel. It was there that he met Anna Bower, whom he married in 1903.

"Yee gawds!" Marguerite laughs as she rummages through old photo albums at her home on University Boulevard. "Here's one of the congregation," says the 88-year-old pastor's daughter, pointing to a black-and-white photograph. In it, women in big floppy hats and long dresses buttoned to the neck stand next to somber-looking men in dark coats and bowlers; the children look uncomfortably stiff in their Sunday best.

Marguerite shakes her head as she points to a little blonde girl. "Yee gawds! That's me." She turns the page. Now the men are smiling, posing in their hiking clothes--some even in lederhosen and alpine caps--on the final approach to the summit of Longs Peak. "My father climbed many of the 14,000-foot mountains in the state...Pikes Peak seven times," she confides. "He thought it was a sin to reach the top by any other way. He really loved the mountains."

The church's new pastor was well-liked by all who met him. William Velte never turned anyone in need away from his door. If someone was hungry, he saw that he was fed; if homeless, he found him a place to stay; if troubled, he invited him into the sanctuary of the church.

The pastor's wife was equally beloved. Anna Velte played piano in the church, a grand monster of a piano, and sang beautifully. She had studied music in college and passed on her love of it to her daughter, whom she had named for one of the characters in the opera Faust.

Although Marguerite's memories of her early days at the church have faded over the years, she remembers that each Christmas, two large, decorated trees were erected outside the doors to the church, each with a man on guard to make sure the candles didn't light the branches on fire. There were trips to the mountains and happy summer days playing with the Italian, German and Jewish children who lived near the parsonage. But most of all, she remembers her mother playing the piano.

But there were unhappy times, too. Anna Velte had dangerously high blood pressure. Lacking any effective treatment, she would be laid up for weeks at a time. The condition grew progressively worse as the years passed. The only remedy the doctors could suggest was to drain her blood under the mistaken notion that it would help relieve the pain.

"My father...my father," Marguerite stammers, covering her eyes as she cries, "would take her blood and give it to the chickens in the backyard." Marguerite would flee to the empty sanctuary to pray for God to help her mother.

During his tenure at First German, Velte rode a bicycle or a streetcar every day to the Iliff School of Theology, from which he graduated with a master's degree in 1915. Proud of his heritage, he offered these remarks for the commencement brochure: "Deutschland, Deutschland, Yber alles."

Soon war was raging in Europe, but Marguerite's father remained stubbornly loyal to his native land. It cost him friendships outside the church and well-deserved respect in the community. In 1918 William Velte was transferred to a church in St. Louis. It was larger, with a more well-heeled congregation and a big parsonage, and it was considered a step up. But Anna Velte could not stand the heat and humidity of the Missouri summers, so in 1922 the family returned to the church at the corner of 25th and California.

Within the year, William Velte gave up his ministry in order to devote himself more fully to his ailing wife. He took a day job at Denver Terra Cotta Company, which was owned by two friends of German heritage, and took care of his family in the evening. But Anna soon died of a stroke. Heartbroken, the Veltes clung to each other. "My father would not remarry while we were still in the house, even though all the ladies were after him," says Marguerite, who later married Aldo Behrensmeyer. ("We pronounced it 'Burnsmeyer' because that sounded less German," she says.)

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