History Of New York’s Trinity Church

Feature Photo: Roman Babakin / Shutterstock.com

New York’s Trinity Church served as an important site during the era of the American Revolution as the United States of America fought to maintain its independence as a nation. Originally, America was founded under the charter of England’s King William III in 1697 but the Dutch already established roots in this church beforehand. Before becoming New York, the area was still referred to as New Amsterdam. Over the span of time, this church housed in three different buildings since the British charter. The first two are deeply connected to George Washington while the third still stands as one of the city’s most impressive landmarks.

The First Church

In 1686, after Governor Benjamin Fletcher approved the purchase of land in Lower Manhattan, the Church of England community began Trinity’s construction. The parish received its charter from England’s king at the time on May 6, 1697. At the time, the annual rent was sixty bushels of wheat. Once completed in 1698, William Vesey became its first rector.

Situated on Wall Street, facing the Hudson River, it was modestly built as a rectangular, gambrel-roofed structure. This became a necessity after the Anglican Church of England issued protests to earn a charter granting them legal status in New York City.

In 1705, the parish’s property holdings increased to 215 acres through Anne, Queen of Great Britain’s decree. In 1709, the Trinity School was founded by William Huddleston as the Charity School of the church. Then in 1754, King’s College became a chartered facility by Great Britain’s King George II was built near the church.

When the American Revolutionary War began, New York was the base of operations during the British occupation after the Battle of Long Island. With General George Washington and the Continental Army now the opposition fighting for independence from British rule, it was required that the clergy of the church served as loyalists. This stance contrasted some of the parishioners as they were members of the state’s revolutionary Provincial Congress, as well as the first and second Continental Congresses.

The first Trinity Church went up in flames on September 20, 1776, and burned to the ground. It was one of up to five hundred buildings that were caught up in the Great New York City fire that didn’t come to an end until the next day. Even though Washington was miles away, he could see the smoke from where he was. When it was all over, it was concluded this tragic event was began in the Fighting Tavern, was accidental. After the fire, members of the original Trinity Church met in St. Paul’s Chapel.

The American Revolution

The history of the Trinity Church during the American Revolution saw a division among its clergy members. Some of them were loyalists to the British while others sided with the Americans. Tensions between the British-born and trained clergy and the American-born and trained patriotic clergy were at an all-time high at this time.

During the British occupation in the city, Samuel Provoost was an assistant minister at Trinity Church before he was forced to resign. The American-born patriot was a stark contrast to loyalist Charles Inglis, who later met the same fate when Washington and his military seized the keys of the church away from him. Inglis’s 1783 farewell sermon included a statement he would have been loyal to Washington’s new government if they allowed him to stay.

As for Provoost, he became the Rector of Trinity Church in 1784 before becoming Bishop of New York in1787. It was during this time the state’s legislature ratified the charter of the church, cutting off the provisions that were asserted as loyalists to the King of England.

On April 30, 1789, in Federal Hall, George Washington was inaugurated, becoming the first President of the United States. Right after the ceremony, he and Provoost attended the Thanksgiving service held at St. Paul’s Chapel. At this time, Trinity’s second church wasn’t ready yet to accommodate as it was still under construction. St. Paul’s was and still is owned by the parish of the church. It is actually the oldest public building in New York City still in operation.

The Second Church

The construction of the second church began in 1788. On March 25, 1790, it was consecrated. It was built in the exact same spot the first church once upon a time stood. President George Washington was in attendance to personally witness the consecration ceremony himself.

Facing Wall Street, this 200-foot-tall structure was longer and wider than the first church. This was necessary as the population of the city was expanding. At the time, the second church was politically significant as President George Washington and his government worshipped there. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton also worshipped inside Trinity until it was torn down after sustaining severe damage due to snow during the winter season from 1838 until 1839.

The Third Church

Construction of the third Trinity Church began in 1839, again on the same spot the previous two stood. On May 1, 1846, otherwise known as Ascension Day, New York’s Episcopal Bishop consecrated what also became a welcome beacon for ships sailing into New York Harbor. This impressive structure features a soaring Gothic Revival spire, as well as an equally impressive gilded cross. These still dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan with a measurement of 281 feet high. Richard Upjohn’s architectural design was considered the first and finest example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Before the church’s completion, 1843 witnessed an expanding parish that was divided due to the cityscape that needed to serve its parishioners with greater efficiency. The newly formed parish also built Grace Church, which is to the north on Broadway at 10th street. This was completed at the same time and consecrated as Trinity.

Up until 1869, New York’s Trinity Church was the tallest building in the United States. This was changed after Old Town, Chicago built St. Michael’s Church. Then in 1890, the New York World Building was built, surpassing the height of the church at 350 feet. However, that building was torn down in 1955 in order to make room for the expanded entrance ramp leading to the Brooklyn Bridge.

In 1853, the church built a reredos and an altar, as well as a rear extension. This single-story addition currently houses rooms for the clergy, choir, and mortuary chapel.

Trinity’s Legacy

Since the 1780s, Trinity Church’s possession of sixty-two acres that were claimed in Queen Anne’s 1705 grant has been contested by the descendants of Dutchwoman Anneke Jans Bogardus. It was argued she was the original owner of the property, pointing out that only five of the six Bogardus heirs had conveyed the land to the English Crown in 1671. For at least sixty years, the matter was brought to court many times over. On every single occasion, including the 1959 lawsuit attempt by the Internal Revenue Service, the courts ruled in favor of the church.

Although the church has sold off much of the land originally granted to them, they still remain one of the largest landowners in New York City. Fourteen acres of Manhattan real estate, plus over five million square feet of commercial space in Hudson Square.

On June 9, 1976, the church’s vestrymen presented the visiting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, 279 peppercorns as a symbolic gesture for the back rent that was owed to the British monarchy. 1976 also marked the year the United States Department of the Interior designated Trinity Church as a National Historic Landmark due to its architectural and historical significance.

In 2001, a proposal to add twelve change-ringing bells to the church was put on hold after the 9/11 terrorist attacks took down the twin World Trade Center Towers. Its location is three blocks south of where the towers once stood. This place served as a refuge as people scrambled to escape the massive debris once the first World Trade Center Tower collapsed. The insanity of the day saw some of the chapel’s pews have their paint rubbed off as people fled into the church. All but one of those pews were replaced. The one that still resides inside is located at the back of the chapel, serving as a remembrance of what happened on September 11, 2001.

It wasn’t until September 2006, thanks to funding from Dill Faulkes Educational Trust, that the proposed bells were installed. After their installment, there was concern among local residents that lived less than one hundred feet at eye level from the church’s bell tower. In response, it built a plywood deck over them and placed shutters on the inside of the chamber’s lancet windows. When the shutters are closed, the sound emitting from the bells outside the tower is minimal. They’re only open for public ringing, which takes place before and after 11:15 A.M on Sundays, as well as special occasion days.






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