Park Hill Congregational Church was organized in 1949 during the post-World War II building boom. Reverend David Colwell was the church's first permanent minister during the 1950s. His relatively orthodox, formal style included his wearing of a clerical collar. Under his leadership, the new church grew rapidly as new families established themselves in Park Hill and adjoining neighborhoods.
The initial church building, now housing Montessori classrooms (used by Temple Micah for 37 years), was dedicated in 1950. In 1953, a classroom wing was added, and in 1956 the present sanctuary was added (called the Narthex). The Sanctuary seats 400 attendees at capacity. The 1956 addition included the Sanctuary, offices, the Fellowship Room with the fireplace and more classrooms. (Today, one of those classrooms serves as our Nursery.)
The membership grew, and by the end of the decade it stood at 680, with two worship services and two sessions of church school held each Sunday. At that time Rev. Richard B. Kozelka came as the church's second senior minister. PHCC was actively involved with Denver Public Schools busing to achieve court ordered integration throughout the city. Kozelka actually ran for a seat on the Denver School Board, but was narrowly defeated.
In the early 1960s, PHCC had nearly 700 members. Then, members living in Aurora wished to form a new congregation there. About 100 members left in a friendly move to form Parkview UCC. At the same time, United Airlines moved to Chicago, and the corporate move affected the many members who lived close to Denver's airport (formerly located in today's Central Park neighborhood east of Park Hill). PHCC's membership dropped substantially just as the neighborhood began to experience other very rapid and substantial demographic changes.
Because of former racist Red Lining policies in real estate, African Americans had been prohibited from moving East across Colorado Boulevard toward Park Hill from Five Points. In the 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, many began moving into Park Hill with its many affordable homes. A period of conflict ensued. Unscrulous realtors sowed the seeds of fear with calls in the night about Black families moving onto their block. White flight to the suburbs South and East was underway. During this period, many of the citizens of Park Hill, acting with and through the neighborhood churches, made it their goal to make Park Hill both integrated and stable. Many socially committed citizens of the 1960s settled in the area. Because of their work, the area became both a desirable place to live and provided an example that racial integration did—and does work.
Rev. Roy Smith became the pastor in 1970. Smith came to PHCC from a campus ministry at CU in Boulder. There had been some congregational conflict toward the end of Kozelka’s term and Smith had the difficult opportunity to assist the church in finding itself and claiming its future. But court-mandated busing in the early 70s fed further white flight. Though we gained African American members and others who moved to Park Hill specifically because it was a diverse neighborhood, church membership continued to decrease. Cultural changes in attitude of the relevance of mainline churches began to be more noticeable in an increasingly secular Denver.
In the 1980s, the Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC desired a majority African American congregation—formed, not surprisingly, with the Black members of existing UCC churches. Park Hill by far had the largest number and suffered the loss of long time friendships and the unique makeup of a diverse liberal church.
In 1989, we were fortunate to have Rev. Phil Campbell, a gifted clergyperson with ordained standing in both the Disciples of Christ and the UCC, join our church as Senior Minister. In 1992, at Phil's initiation, the congregation attempted to broaden its African-American membership. We decided to enter into a co-pastorate with an African American minister. The national UCC and the Rocky Mountain Conference provided funds to assist the co-pastorate. The congregation welcomed the new minister warmly and enthusiastically. A year into this co-pastorate, however, the new minister engaged in sexual misconduct with two parishoners; and the congregation terminated his contract. This was a terribly sad occasion because our congregation was pleased with the new direction of the church. The termination of the minister was handled with the help of the Rocky Mountain Conference, but there were many strong emotions expressed during that time. The congregation was very disappointed, because it had been so committed to the co-pastorate idea and hoped it would bring more people of color into the congregation.
The congregation stabilized and lived into its identity as a progressive Christian community. Phil was very active in neighborhood affairs. Membership ranged between 175 to 225. In addition, the church became a leader in the Rocky Mountain Conference in mission giving per capita. Far from being the largest church, OCWM is in the top 12. Furthermore, the congregation became "A Just Peace Church."
After 15 years of inventive leadership, Phil departed in 2005 to teach at Iliff School of Theology. We had a somewhat extended interim period that included two ministers, Rev. Andrea Anastos, then Rev. Jack Wieczorek. Membership decreased to 165. During this time, the congregation discovered the strength and value of lay leadership. The best example of this was the formation and work of a Search Committee that led to the arrival of Rev. Dr. David Bahr at Thanksgiving time in 2007.
David Bahr came from Cleveland, Ohio, where he had worked on the staff of the national UCC and then served an inner-city congregation, Archwood UCC, for 15 years. David helped turn a dying all-white church into a dynamic multiracial, open, and affirming community known for inventive ministry around the city. In fact, David was named one of Cleveland's "50 Most Interesting People" for his annual stint as a "hostage" in the steeple to raise food donations—and for being the first openly gay pastor in Ohio—as well as among just a few throughout the U.S. at the time.
Under David's leadership, Park Hill UCC adopted a long-range plan which notably asked the congregation to vote on whether to sell the building and share a facility with another smaller congregation or stay and invest in a capital campaign. The building had been almost completely neglected with the philosophy of spending money on mission instead of the building. While mission support is a very admirable goal, a facility needs maintenance when systems break and deteriorate—and consequently appear shabby and unwelcoming to new and existing members. The decision to "move or stay" was very contentious and many people felt hurt. The vote had been close in a small congregation: 47 to move vs. 53 to stay. But the vote was to stay. An era of healing work began.
A year later, a capital campaign was devised that would, among other things, bring openness and light to a dark and unwelcoming entry. Nearly $450,000 was pledged. One of the most dramatic changes was to the look of the Sanctuary. Long rigid rows of pews were replaced with movable chairs to create flexibility and intimacy. The Pulpit, which was seven steps above the congregation, was removed. While the Pulpit fit with the neo-orthodox theology of the 1950s, it became an impediment to progressive Christianity in 2015. As a result of the more open and flexible Sanctuary layout, its operations have benefitted a wide use by non-profit and community groups who rent church facilities and further expose members of the community to our inclusive culture and mission. One of the many community groups who use our facility is Black Lives Matter 5280. Further facility investments were made: solar panels on the roof, energy efficiency measures, and building repairs and upgrades. As a result of the care, more than $800,000 was spent to make the building safe, hospitable, and energy efficient.
Park Hill UCC is living into the future by asking not what is the future of the church, but what is the church of the future. Our Vision is to invest in Faith Formation, bring light and hope in dark times, and challenge our church community to make a difference in the world through bold acts of compassion and justice. Leadership from our neighborhood churches is needed again as the community grows less racially diverse with every house sale. Our legacy shall not just be what we did in the 60s, but what we are called to today to keep it so diverse and serve social justice with our mission partners.
You are invited to participate in this Vision.