Three Centuries of Grace
Manhattan's Trinity Church Celebrates its Tricentennial
by Adele M. Stan
NEW YORK (RNS)--Nestled in the shadowy canyons of Wall Street, where narrow sidewalks bend in the shade cast by buildings grown to spectacular heights, sits the unlikely progenitor of Manhattan's famed financial district--the parish of Trinity Church. From its inception in 1697, when King William III granted the charter for New York City's first Anglican church, Trinity's unique place in American history was secured. As president, George Washington worshipped there when New York served as the capital of the new nation. Alexander Hamilton, the country's first secretary of the treasury, is buried in the churchyard next to soldiers who served in the Revolution. But perhaps of even more lasting consequence is the church's continuing ministry to the titans of finance and commerce, many of whom toil in offices built on land once owned by the church.
"Hundreds of them, I guess, every day step inside for a moment of quiet, of peace, of-- perhaps--prayer," said Rev. Daniel Paul Matthews, Ph.D., rector of Trinity Church. Because the church is located in a business district, Matthews explained, "we don't have the same kind of neighborhood structure as a [typical] parish, so we would like to serve our constituents--the financial people--in our neighborhood."
As Trinity marks its 300th year as a parish with a flurry of programs and activities, it also celebrates the 150th anniversary of its current church building, a neo-gothic gem conceived by Robert Upjohn, the English cabinet-maker who went on to become one of the New World's celebrated architects. Upjohn's sandstone monument to divine majesty is the third Trinity to grace the famous plot where Wall Street meets Broadway in Gotham's frantic downtown; the first fell to a fire that swept New York City in 1776, and the second to Upjohn's own pronouncement that its snow-damaged roof was irreparable.
Now distinguished in its setting by its demure proportions when compared to the surrounding glass-and-steel giants, it was actually Trinity, according to architect and preservationist Paul Spencer Byard, that set off New York's race for the sky with the construction of Upjohn's design, which features a 22-story tower. At the time the church was completed in 1846, Byard says, Trinity's tower stood as city's tallest structure. With the fame he earned from Trinity's leap towards the heavens, Upjohn went on to found the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Byard's assessment of Trinity's architectural significance appears in an article in the church's own glossy quarterly magazine, Trinity News.
To the casual observer passing along the narrow streets walled in by the impossibly tall buildings of the city's financial district, Trinity appears as an oasis of peaceful quaintness--an impression that belies its temporal power as one of the city's largest commercial landlords. In 1705, Queen Anne bestowed on Trinity a grant of 215 acres in what would become lower Manhattan for an annual rent of "one peppercorne." (When Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinity in 1976, she was presented with a symbolic back-rent of 279 peppercorns.)
Some of the land was, in turn, granted by the church to the 70 parishes it founded, as well as other institutions, such as a newly-founded Kings College (later to become Columbia University), and much was sold off. But commercially significant plots of land remain in parish hands, according to Joseph P. Palombi, the church's executive vice president for real estate. Last month, at an Ascension Day ceremony commemorating the century-and-a-half anniversary of the groundbreaking for Upjohn's church, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was just one of a host of officials--including state comptroller H. Carl McCall, Columbia University President George Rupp and the New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso--to salute Trinity in testament to its continuing stature in the secular world.
"Later on today, the press will accuse me of meeting with New York City's largest landowner," the mayor joked in his remarks. The church still owns some 27 commercial properties in downtown New York, says Palombi, which account for some six million square feet of office, retail and manufacturing space in a city where space of any kind comes at a premium. Though church officials decline to reveal the amount of income generated by its real estate, it is believed that the properties owned by Trinity are nearly 90 percent occupied. If so, they could generate an annual income in excess of $60 million from rental fees alone--a hefty supplement to an endowment that's been growing for three centuries. In addition to its Manhattan stake, the church also owns a modern conference facility that can accommodate 60 overnight guests in the bucolic tourist country of Litchfield County.
With its staff of six full-time corporate officers and 22 program officers and attendant support staff, Trinity occupies a unique place in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which is best known for its Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest gothic cathedral in the world. As the richest church among the 202 parishes that form the diocese, Trinity's contribution to the diocese accounts for 25 percent of the $5 million diocesean budget, according to Michael McPherson, the chief administrative officer for the Diocese of New York. The 25-percent figure is the result of a cap self-imposed by the diocese, McPherson explained, so that the diocese would not become overly dependent on the largesse of its oldest church.
Trinity's Rector Matthews puts it another way. "They decided not to be too dependent on Grandpa," he said. Still, Trinity's assessment by the diocese (the mechanism used to determine how much each parish pays to the diocese) exceeds the cap by "a couple hundred thousand" dollars, according to McPherson, so the overage goes into the diocese's recently formed endowment fund. "Trinity has been enormously generous over the centuries," McPherson noted.
Throughout its history, Trinity has used its steady river of income for good works such as the education of the poor, outreach to the city's immigrant population and shelter for the homeless. It also makes grants to other Episcopalian churches for programs in spiritual development and maintains an active day school and day-care center, according to the Dierdre E. Taylor, the church's director of communications. Since 1971, Trinity's grants program has dispensed more than $46 million to some 1,300 recipients for projects such as the anti-apartheid efforts of South Africa's most famous Episcopalian, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the construction of affordable housing in the poorer boroughs of New York.
Dept. of Big Ideas
In keeping with these media-driven times, the church has lately turned its wealth to promoting the discussions of big ideas through its Trinity Institute in collaboration with the church's well-staffed communications projects. Equipped with a full television studio of its own overseen by Acting Director of Video Productions Linda Hanick, Trinity has already collected several Emmy awards for a self-produced documentary and a dramatization of a short story, and even won for a game show called "Inspiration, Please" that airs on the Faith & Values cable channel. Amid the current bout of theological dust-ups concerning questions about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the church's latest video offering is a panel discussion called "Jesus at 2000: The Conversation Continues," filmed last month during a seminar sponsored by the institute that featured scholars Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox and Huston Smith. At press time, the busy Hanick was working on the editing of two projects, each in separate editing rooms.
This year, the church plans to launch a new magazine on religious matters for the general public that will be edited by T. George Harris, founding editor of Psychology Today and American Health magazines.
Presiding over the Trinity Institute is Rev. Frederic Burnham, Ph.D. An historian of science, the Rev. Dr. Burnham conveys a sense of urgency about the need for business and cultural leaders to come to grips with what he sees as a revolution already afoot in the way humans perceive nature and the world, a revolution sparked by recent discoveries and trends in physics, such as chaos theory. The current revolution will be as culturally jarring, Burnham believes, as the 18th-century Newtonian ideas that led to the historical period known as the Enlightenment.
To help ease the way, Trinity will mark its 300th year with an ecumenical program called "New Ways of Knowing," in which the grand schemes of God and Nature will be discussed with some of the top names on Wall Street, though, at press time, Dr. Burham wasn't yet saying just who from the boardrooms were on board with the church. He is joined in the project by Daniel Yankelovich, the famed social philosopher and consultant, and Ronald F. Thiemann, Ph.D., the dean of Harvard Divinity School. A "television product," as Burnham describes it, will be one result of the program, along with a series of symposia and other gatherings.
When asked why a church would engage the captains of commerce in a dialogue about such esoteric concerns as chaos theory, Burnam replied, "Because these people are going to be the form-givers of the new culture. They're more important than even they think they are. Somebody better to talk to them."
"Because of our endowment," added Matthews, "we feel called to help more fundamental directional setting...We need to be on the growing edge of setting the agenda for the way we're going to think in the future." Matthews sees in the new science possibilities for restoring a sense of mystery and miracles to the world, notions overshadowed by the Enlightenment view of nature as orderly and precise, with an emphasis on reason over faith. "If you say there's a new way of knowing which includes the concept of mystery," Matthews explained, what follows is the notion "that the spiritual world is not a world that's contrary to or opposite from the world of science." Though the ideals of the Enlightenment still dominate our perception of the world, its moment is passing, contends the Rev. Dr. Matthews. Of Trinity's role in advancing a new worldview, Matthews concluded, "It does fit us because we're a grand old operator."
The Enlightenment is dead.
Long live the Enlightenment!
Looking at Trinity's past, it seems appropriate that its leaders stand poised to herald the end of the Enlightenment, which began concurrently with the founding of the church, but has vexed its leaders from the beginning. The United States is said to be a product of the Enlightenment principles of the nation's founders, whom the leaders of Trinity, British loyalists all, opposed during the War for Independence. Following the war, church leaders accepted the inevitable and, along with other Anglican colonial churches, recast itself as "Episcopal."
Two of the Founders apparently forgave Trinity's leaders for their Tory sympathies. After his inauguration as the nation's first president, George Washington proceeded to St. Paul's Chapel, part of the Trinity parish, for a service of thanksgiving. While the capital remained in New York, Washington attended Trinity services regularly. Alexander Hamilton, the master capitalist and industrialist of the Founding Fathers, was a controversial parishioner whose very death posed a dilemma for then-rector, Rev. Benjamin Moore.
As Hamilton lay dying in his New York home in 1804, Moore hesitated before going to Hamilton's bedside. Hamilton's impending demise was the result of a gun duel he fought with the infamous Aaron Burr on the west bank of the Hudson River, a practice Moore denounced as barbaric and immoral. In a letter to the editor of the Boston Gazette encased in glass in Trinity's museum, Moore reports on Hamilton's final hours, and the promise he exacted from the 47-year-old Founder--that if he lived, Hamilton would go on the hustings to speak against dueling.
Upjohn's Trinity building is a product of the British Oxford Movement, which, according to Burnham, was born of a backlash against both the cool classicism of the Enlightenment and the evangelical fervor that was sweeping the 19th-century Protestant world. In what was termed "radical orthodoxy," the leaders of the Oxford movement sought to restore the elaborate liturgical and architectural forms of the past to Episcopalian and Anglican church life as a means of renewing a sense of spiritual wonder.
Many of the Enlightenment minds of Trinity's parishioners chafed at the precepts of the Oxford movement; according to architect Byard, they found the return to catholic traditions disconcertingly papist in flavor. Nonetheless, Upjohn's Oxford sympathies are in full flower in the church described by architecture critic Brendan Gill as "exuberantly gothic" in an address he delivered at the Ascension Day service. Yet Upjohn's gothic sensibility conveys itself not only through its crisp, elongated sense of proportion, but also through an architectural sleight-of-hand. The church's buttresses are merely decorative, as is the elaborate vaulted ceiling which turns out to be formed of plaster, not stone.
A lively congregation
Today Upjohn's creation houses a lively multi-racial congregation of some 1,000 souls. The church is designated a National Landmark by the U.S. Parks Service, and is open to the public for daily tours through the church and its museum. In addition to the Trinity Institute's "New Ways of Knowing" project, the church will celebrate its tercentennial year with a series of concerts, the creation of a time capsule to be buried in the church yard for the next 100 years, and the production of an oral history video featuring Trinity's parishioners. The celebration will culminate with a visit in May 1997 by the Most Reverend George L. Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, the primate of the Anglican Church.
Trinity's survival as a living parish and power player on the national and international scenes over the course of three centuries is regarded by some to be nothing short of a modern miracle. "Both literally and figuratively," Brendan Gill told parishioners and dignitaries assembled in the church nave on Ascension Day, "Trinity stands for steadfastness in a culture devoted to the transitory."