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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.