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Aspen Community Church turns 125

The Aspen Community Church is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher visited on Tuesday, and has this story.

Bryan Dunnewald is practicing on the organ, in the sanctuary of the community church.  He’ll be performing here tonight. “I think the most interesting thing about this church is that it’s what I would consider a small town or country church,” says Dunnewald. “But it has a really nice acoustic, which is rare."

The wooden benches and red carpet give this room of worship an old world feel. And the instrument Dunnewald is playing is one of the biggest of its kind on the Western Slope.  Dunnewald’s recital tonight is part of a series in celebration of the church’s 125 years.

“The Presbyterian congregation, which was quite large and well funded, built the beautiful building that we call the Aspen Community Church," explains Nina Gabianelli. She’s Vice President of Programming and Education with the Aspen Historical Society.

“They laid the cornerstone in 1890. And through the course of less than a year, that church was built, with locally quarried peach blow sandstone [and] locally quarried brick. The design stone is called Richardson Romanesque,” says Gabianelli. “And Richardson is the architect who rebuilt Chicago following the fires in the 1870s.” A fitting connection with the Windy City, which has continued throughout Aspen’s history.

Gabianelli says the turret, with a spiral staircase, was typical of the time period. Less typical was having a sanctuary on the second floor.

The congregation has since become United Methodist. There’s been major renovations over the decades— most recently in the last few years, when the building was in danger of suddenly collapsing. There are more bits and pieces to fix in the coming years, like electrical and plumbing systems. And, there’s the problem of a dwindling number of people attending services. Right now that’s about fifty people. Today, as Bryan Dunnewald practices the organ in the sanctuary, Pastor Mike Nickerson is leading his weekly Bible study group downstairs, in what’s called the Fellowship Hall.

"Every Tuesday at noon, we call it brown bagging the Bible," says Nickerson with a laugh.

This is one of multiple groups who meet at the church— a key way the Aspen Community Church continues to fulfill its name. Right now the church is also housing the homeless for about three weeks. This study group of five are greying, reflecting an aging congregation.

“Basically [the congregation] revolves around Sunday morning, although we do have a Saturday night service during ski season,” says Nickerson. “Which has been attended by a few people but not many.” Those Saturday services began in February. They’re at night to let people ski powder on Sunday mornings. “Our high was 8, our low was 4,” Nickerson laughs again. “So, not a lot of people. I was hoping for more."

Although it hasn’t been a smashing success so far, the Saturday services are one of the ways Nickerson is trying to grow the number of people coming to the church for its religious services. He says, “[the anniversary] is a time in which we can renew our thoughts about, ok, we’ve been here 125 years, what are we going to do the next 125 years?”

Events celebrating the church’s longevity will continue through a year from now. Tonight’s organ concert is one in a series of concerts that are part of that. Musician Bryan Dunnewald says the Aspen Community Church’s older sanctuary is very listener friendly.

“So I get to come play a recital in a beautiful small town and still have a great instrument and space to play in,” smiles Dunnewald. “It’s actually my first time to Aspen ever, and I lived in Denver my whole life. So it’s been a long time coming."

It’s concerts like the one this past Tuesday that Pastor Mike Nickerson hopes will also bring in more people.

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