An eye for beauty: Shop features unique sacred art

Connecting people with inspiring works by religious, lay artists fulfilling for Creator Mundi founder

Roxanne King

May you always find beauty!”

That was the response of Hildegard Letbetter’s mother to her then 6-year-old’s found treasure in post-World War II rubble on the way to the Cologne Cathedral: a shard of china featuring a delicate blue flower.

Her mother’s blessing took. For over three decades Letbetter, a German native who moved to Littleton, Colo., in 1972, has shared her eye for beauty through the exquisite sacred art and religious gifts she carries in her shop, Creator Mundi. The gallery specializes in works from Germany, Lithuania, Italy, Poland and France, as well as some from Colorado artists.

“We try to represent exceptional art, real art, not sweatshop stuff,” Letbetter told the Denver Catholic, explaining she strives to support the work of religious communities and lay artists dedicated to bringing the Scriptures alive through art.

“They are images for healthy spirituality and living,” she said, adding that it’s important to her that the artists are justly compensated for their efforts.

Entering her Englewood gallery is like stepping into a sacred space.

“People tell us that all the time,” she said with a laugh. “Some will come and just sit for 30 minutes.”

When you are a guest in a country, you want to contribute. I feel I had something to offer that no one else could have done because they didn’t know about it.”

That reaction pleases her as the works Creator Mundi offers — crafted from bronze, glass, enamel, wood, pewter and ceramic — are meant to help people “create sacred spaces.”

Letbetter opened Creator Mundi, Latin for “creator of the world,” in 1987 after an unsuccessful attempt to find a first Communion gift she liked at local stores.

“I wrote to a Benedictine men’s monastery in Germany that I knew had a line of beautiful items, mostly bronze,” she said. “They sent me 12 pieces. I showed them to friends and they were immediately gone! It was meant to be.”

Originally called Precious Gifts, Letbetter ran the business out of her home before opening a shop in downtown Littleton. There it operated as Creator Mundi for three years before moving to Denver’s Cherry Creek North in 1997, where it was a fixture for 18 years. Today, Creator Mundi is located at 901 Englewood Parkway, Suite 112.

For the last year, the shop has celebrated its 30th anniversary. In gratitude for the milestone, the observance will be capped with a Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 22) drawing for a bronze wall plaque called “Angel of Contemplation,” which was forged at Maria Laach Abbey in Germany. (Find drawing details at creatormundi.com)

“It’s been quite a journey,” Letbetter said about her life and successful business. “There have been many miracles along the way.”

The first was fulfilling her childhood dream of immigrating to the United States in the 1960s through the generosity of American friends. Then, armed with a degree in Germanic languages, Letbetter landed a job as a college dean’s assistant. That was another miracle.

“It was a gift put into my lap,” she said. “I met my husband and eventually we came here.”

The couple was already blessed with three daughters when they arrived in Colorado from Texas. Initially hoping to teach at a college, Letbetter’s eye for beauty instead led her to her business as she shared the sacred art treasures she knew about with others.

“I myself am not an artist. All my [children and grandchildren] are — they are all in art or music. But I have a good eye,” she said with a smile.

Knowing that she is connecting individuals and organizations with extraordinary sacred works from around the world (she helped the Diocese of Orange County, Calif., get a rare tabernacle by German sculptor Egino Weinert for its Christ Cathedral set to open next year), thereby aiding those artists to continue “co-creating with God,” brings her great satisfaction.

Hildegard Letbetter shares her eye for beauty through the sacred art and religious gifts she carries in her shop, Creator Mundi. The gallery features works from Germany, Lithuania, Italy, Poland and France, as well as Colorado. (Photos by Roxanne King)

“It’s fulfilling,” she said. “When you are a guest in a country, you want to contribute. I feel I had something to offer that no one else could have done because they didn’t know about it.”

Letbetter also sells wholesale and online. She still carries works from the monastery that sent her the first dozen pieces she sold.

“We have become like family,” she said.

As well as offering statues, sculptures and wall art — including crosses, crucifixes, icons and illuminated manuscripts — her inventory includes nativities, rosaries, jewelry, cards and a few liturgical items, such as chalices.

Items range from gifts for children to adults, and are appropriate for sacraments, Christmas and Easter. Prices range from $2.50 for a pewter angel medallion, to over $4,000 for a large wooden Madonna and Child carved by an Italian artist.

Although Creator Mundi specializes in Catholic sacred art, the shop draws other Christians and even those of other faiths.

“It’s marvelous — I feel we have done something for the unity of Christianity,” Letbetter said. “And you know, angels, many faiths have that in common — the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Even Buddhism has … figures that act as angels, as messengers.”

Letbetter hopes that people find their own treasure from her unique inventory that inspires and deepens their faith.

“It’s a good feeling,” she said.

See what sorts of gifts Creator Mundi has to offer at creatormundi.com.

COMING UP: Unique shop brings Holy Land art here, sustains Christians there

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Unique shop brings Holy Land art here, sustains Christians there

Popular Bethlehem Handicrafts opens store in Aurora

Roxanne King

It’s the only one in the United States and it’s located in the Archdiocese of Denver. The well-known and respected Bethlehem Handicrafts, which imports carved olive wood items from the Holy Land to sell here at parishes and mall kiosks and internationally online (bethlehemhandicrafts.com) opened a store April 2, Easter Monday, in Aurora.

Located at 4114 S. Parker Road, the well-stocked store offers an array of exquisite olive wood items ranging from religious statues, crucifixes and rosaries to jewelry and kitchen items crafted by over 400 Holy Land artisans, providing them with a means to support their families.

“We are the only store in the United States that does this,” said George Bannoura, 40, a co-owner of the family business.

Bethlehem Handicrafts was born 15 years ago when Bannoura, a native of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field), which is located just east of Bethlehem and is home to the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, brought goods from there to sell in Denver to keep his family and fellow artisans from poverty after tourism tanked due to escalating violence in the Middle East. The vast majority of Christians living in or near Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Their numbers have steadily declined due to unrest and lack of work.

We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land. Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

“Twenty years ago in the city of Bethlehem, Christians were 85 percent of the population. Now, we are only 15 percent of the population,” said Bannoura, whose family still maintains both their workshop and homes there.

Numbers for the larger Holy Land are even more telling. In 2014, Israel had just over 8 million people, the Palestinian Territories 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million. Christians were estimated to make up from 2 to 3 percent of those totals (2-plus percent in Israel and Jordan, and about 1.25 percent in Palestine).

“Our main mission [at Bethlehem Handicrafts] is to help ourselves as a community,” Bannoura said. “We want to help our livelihood so Christians can stay there. I always ask, If there are no Christians left in the Holy Land, what will happen to the sacred sites?”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, recognizing the importance of a Christian presence in the land where Jesus walked, has periodically sent letters to parishes urging prayers for Holy Land Christians and support for Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“Our faith was born in a land that is both holy and often in turmoil,” he wrote last April. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land undergo many hardships to practice their faith, but they remain committed to the land where Jesus lived, preached, died and rose from the dead…. Your parishioners’ support of the Bannoura’s business can help maintain their presence in Bethlehem.”

Father James Spahn, pastor of St. John Paul II in Thornton and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, has visited the Bannoura family’s workshop in Bethlehem.

“They use the olive wood from the area and carve religious items from it,” he said. “[The work] helps the Christians there who have a hard life with very little opportunity and it brings beautiful religious items here for people’s homes and for our parishes. It’s a win-win situation.”

To be a Christian in the Holy Land facing the circumstances they do today has been described as a vocation and as a mission. The Bannoura family has embraced that vocation and mission wholeheartedly.

“We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land,” Bannoura said. “Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

Committed to offering the highest quality wood and artistry possible, Bannoura said the family opened their store because they can only take a limited number of their 800-plus items to display at parishes and at seasonal mall kiosks. And while people can view items online, it’s not the same as viewing them in person.

The newly-opened Bethlehem Handicrafts storefront in Aurora features hand-carved statuettes and crosses made our of olive wood from the Holy Land. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We recently added hand-painted ceramic items, olive soap, icons, kitchen utensils and silver jewelry,” Bannoura said, motioning to shelves lined with colorful plates and cups, fragrant soaps and eye-catching jewelry. “A good number of women make the rosaries and bracelets.”

Bethlehem Handicrafts also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which Blessed Paul VI called “the fifth gospel,” to enliven one’s faith, and to support and encourage Christians there. Bannoura said he’s always asked if such journeys are safe. Despite hotspot instability, pilgrimages to the Holy Land are remarkably safe and have recently seen increased numbers.

“If it weren’t safe,” Bannoura declared, “I wouldn’t take my wife and children there.”

Reflecting on the newest venture in the family business, opening the store, Bannoura said he is filled with gratitude for his home here and the warm support the Catholic community has given to Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“We love Denver, we love Colorado,” he said. “This is my second home. I thank Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Bishop Stephen Berg and all the priests and faithful who have been great supporters of us.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts
Store: 4114 S. Parker Road, Aurora, CO 80014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays
Online: www.BethlehemHandicrafts.com
Phone: 720-201-7193 or toll free 844-999-4659