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Religious art, gifts soothe souls at Englewood shop

Creator Mundi offers articles of faith without judgment

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After watching a man peer through the window for a while, Hildegard Letbetter welcomed him into her store, a shop that sold religious gifts and was then located on Third Avenue in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood.

“I don't know what I'm doing here,” the man said.

He told Letbetter he's Muslim, not someone who would be looking at Christian art.

“Oh — we have the same God,” Letbetter replied. The man replied that he's a professor of theology and that he'd never seen anything like the collection in the store. He bought a Christian symbol for his wife, also Muslim.

Letbetter and the man corresponded afterward.

“I knew nothing about, or very little about, the Muslim faith,” said Letbetter, owner of Creator Mundi, a business she started at home and then opened in Littleton, then Denver and now Englewood in 2015. But “we together, we're all trying to go through life with God guiding us, and it doesn't really matter whether we are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist.”

Letbetter recalled that story from years ago while sitting in her current location at 901 Englewood Parkway, about three weeks from her store's 30th anniversary celebration. She's seen growth, change and shifting religious trends over the decades, but she's still sticking to the mission she set out with in 1987.

“It wasn't we have Christian gifts, or we have (Jewish) gifts,” said Letbetter, who wanted to bring people together. “This is a store speaking the great wonder of God and the mystery of God. It's not about, 'here, I have this denomination and you have this denomination.'

“I wanted this community to say, 'you have part of the truth, you have part of the truth, we all have a part of the truth,'” Letbetter said.

Letbetter's steadfast and open-armed worldview took a long, globetrotting road to get to Englewood. She grew up a child without enough to eat or drink in the aftermath of World War II in Cologne, Germany — her family received care packages from the United States. Since she was a small child, she said, “I'm going to America.”

“I think (the packages) made me think, oh, they have enough to eat,” Letbetter, 78, said with a laugh.

Her older brothers later studied in the U.S., staying with different households. A family from Indiana visited Letbetter's and offered to bring her stateside, but Letbetter said her parents didn't have the means.

The next month, a ticket from the family arrived in the mail. The year after, in 1964, she taught at DePauw University in Indiana after getting an assistantship offer. She met her husband during that time, and after he served a stint in the Vietnam War, they relocated and she taught German at the University of Texas.

“In 1970-71, there was an economic downturn — no jobs anywhere,” Letbetter said. So she and her husband, who ultimately divorced, came to Denver and started over.

Years later, she started her religious-gifts business in her home in 1987, opening on Main Street in Littleton around the start of the '90s.

Letbetter wanted to start something special.

“I went around, and I only saw items that didn't make you feel good about your faith, or were kitschy, as we say in Germany,” Letbetter said. “That's where the seed was planted.”

Next time she went to Germany, she made connections, offering to sell items from a monastery. They sold fast, and during the next trip she made, Letbetter visited other places with items she could bring to the U.S. Today, her store sells art from countries like Poland, Italy, Austria, Ireland and Canada.

Quality religious gifts are few and far between, said Patrick, who's worked for Creator Mundi since 2001.

People “confuse price with value,” said Patrick, who wished to be identified by his first name. “That's where we come in.”

Popular items include the tree of life symbol, wedding crosses and baptism crosses — one of the most popular is a $2.50 pewter angel. The range of products between $50 and $100 is wide, Letbetter said.

“I cannot do art myself, but I have an eye” for it, said Letbetter, who studied theology in Germany.

She grew up inspired by experiences she had in the Cologne Cathedral around the time of World War II, but also confused by the religious messages she heard as a child.

“I grew up with 'Thou shalt not,' and it didn't make sense to me because everything that was fun, it was 'Thou shalt not,'” Letbetter laughed. She started asking questions of adults around her, but “they couldn't give me any answers. When I went to university, I said, this is what I need to find out.”

Through the years, she's seen generational change in how people interpret both religion and the art that comes from it.

“Today, it's not about the theology,” but how people live together, Letbetter said. “How you fashion your life in the spirit of Jesus.”

Millennials tend to buy gifts in her store for others, rather than seeking a religious symbol for their homes, Letbetter said.

“A lot of younger people struggle with the traditional religions,” Letbetter said. “They will buy something spiritual,” like a piece representing seasons.

Customers are much more open to abstract items now — “where they can look at an item and dream about it,” Letbetter said.

A customer March 20 came in to buy pieces for first communion and confirmation, and the young boy and girl tagging along toddled around to different art for the occasion.

“You go to a religious shop, and it's kind of the stuff you always see,” said Rochelle Anderson, 47, from Denver, who came with the children. But she enjoyed Letbetter's selection.

“It's just a little more creative,” Anderson said.

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