In keeping with its official name, The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, has always been closely linked with the life of its neighborhood in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. It was founded at the moment when urban development, which had moved westward from the Delaware River, reached the southwestern of the four squares laid out in William Penn’s original plan. A group of prosperous merchants and professional men first met in 1855 to plan formation of a new Episcopal parish near the square.
In the midst of contention within the Episcopal Church over appropriate approaches to worship, the founders also intended to ensure a place in the neighborhood for a “low church” parish, one following simpler liturgies and emphasizing preaching. In fact, many leading members, such as merchant Lemuel Coffin who had been raised as a Quaker, had moved to the Episcopal Church from other Protestant denominations. In keeping with this vision, they chose Philadelphia architect John Notman’s design for a building of sandstone in the Norman or neo-Romanesque style often favored by low-church congregations. Although the original plan for the building featured a grand steeple that would dominate the Square’s landscape, its interior was in effect a large lecture hall seating 1500, with large galleries on the sides.
Also in keeping with the founders’ vision, they selected as its first rector the Rev. Alexander H. Vinton of Boston, a leading low church figure. With the Church building still under construction, Vinton began his tenure on November 28, 1858 by preaching morning and afternoon services in the Parish Building located directly to the west along Walnut Street. Inaugural services in the new church were held on March 27, 1859.
GROWTH AND EXPANSION
Mid-nineteenth century America was a golden age of oratory, in which attending lectures, secular and religious, was a popular form of entertainment. Noted speakers were treated as celebrities. Vinton quickly attracted a growing congregation, and when he left for a New York parish, he was succeeded in 1862 by a young man destined to become one of the most prominent preachers of the age. The Rev. Phillips Brooks had attended Vinton’s Boston parish. After graduation from Harvard College he attended Theological Seminary in Virginia. Brooks’ powerful preaching style and straightforward Christian message filled the large church at two and eventually three services on Sunday and evening lectures during the week.
The Church became known as the parish of many of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most socially prominent citizens, but congregants came from all classes. In addition, over time its Vestry assumed responsibility for several smaller congregations. The first of these had begun nearby as Cranmer Chapel, ministering to “the plainer classes of the population,” but was unable to support itself. In 1863 the Vestry agreed to take charge of the Chapel, renamed Trinity Chapel. In 1874 it moved to a new building at 22nd and Spruce. Funding came from family memorials to Anna Gertrude Wilstach and to John Bohlen and the new church was renamed as “Holy Trinity Memorial Chapel.”
In 1893, another mission was established at 23rd and Tasker; initially named The Chapel of Saint Faith, it was rechristened as The Chapel of the Prince of Peace in 1896. In 1914 a third, the Phillips Brooks Memorial Chapel, was founded at 1925 Lombard Street; it had its roots in a Sunday School for Colored People set up by the Rev. Brooks in 1867. In subsequent decades all three became independent parishes.
THE CIVIL WAR AND A FAMOUS CHRISTMAS CAROL
In the 1850s and 1860s political and social turmoil surrounding slavery and civil war touched Philadelphia deeply. Like many New Englanders, Brooks strongly opposed slavery and advocated active prosecution of the war against the seceding states. His convictions were not shared by all members of the congregation. Brooks’ eloquent sermons and lectures on the subjects brought him to national attention but also sparked the resignations of several prominent members. In particular, his powerful eulogy to Abraham Lincoln, preached on April 23, 1865, was reprinted and widely read.
Taking a sabbatical year after the war’s end, Brooks traveled to Europe and the Holy Land. He later wrote a poem for his Sunday School children, inspired by the memory of his visit to Bethlehem. For Christmas season in 1868, he asked the church’s organist Louis Redner to set it to music. The result, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” soon took its place as one of the most beloved Christmas carols.
In 1869 Brooks returned to Boston to become rector of Trinity Church, later rising to Bishop of Massachusetts. Subsequently several of The Church of the Holy Trinity’s rectors – the Rev. Thomas A. Jaggar and the Rev. William N. McVickar – became bishops.
REACHING OUT, BEAUTIFYING WITHIN
Lay members of the church have always played an active role in the life of the congregation. During Brooks’ day, church members organized a night school held in the Chapel on week-day evenings and its ladies led a mothers’ group and an outside Bible class. Stalwart members like Lemuel Coffin and Louis Redner taught Sunday School for decades. In the 1890s, widening concern for the social as well as spiritual needs of the poor inspired new programs. Ladies of the Fresh Air Committee campaigned to establish a summer retreat for sick and poor parishioners of CHT and its mission chapels. In 1895 “Holiday House” was purchased in the Bucks County community of Sellersville. For a time the Chapel Guild also ran a laundry at 22nd and Lombard to provide employment for needy women.
Each generation of parishioners left its mark on the building, gradually adding embellishments to the once-austere interior. In 1880 renovations directed by Henry Van Brunt of Boston and James Sims of Philadelphia added a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with delicate Victorian stenciling and enlarged the chancel. In 1883 a 25-bell carillon, cast in Belgium, was given to the church by Joseph E. Temple as a memorial to his wife Martha Anna Kirtley Temple. Over subsequent decades, stained glass windows and an impressive pulpit and reading desk were added as memorials. Parishioners’ considerable wealth also began to be reflected in the growth of the Church’s endowment.
A NEW CENTURY
The Rev. Dr. Floyd Tomkins’ tenure from 1899 to 1932 was the longest in The Church of the Holy Trinity’s history; it saw the highwater mark of the parish in terms of size, as it reached nearly 3,000 communicants and an average Sunday attendance of 1200. A Bible class for women led by Mary Schott attracted over 200. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle took over the men’s Bible class in 1908 and, inspired by his eccentric vision of “Athletic Christianity” that included boxing instruction, launched a national movement. (Biddle’s story inspired the 1967 Disney film, The Happiest Millionaire.)
In the earliest days of radio, Tomkins recognized the new medium’s potential to expand the reach of the Church’s message. The Church began broadcasting Sunday morning services over station WIP, enabling many who could not otherwise attend to take part in a church service. Holy Trinity continued to broadcast services until the program was discontinued by the station in 1964.
Nevertheless, much change in the twentieth century was not friendly to Philadelphia or to the Church. Many of its most wealthy parishioners joined the general exodus to the suburbs. Gradually, the mansions that had once ringed Rittenhouse Square were replaced by apartment buildings, office buildings and hotels. Church adapted to changing times; under the Rev. Frank Salmon, membership was separated from rental or ownership of pews. The Rev. Harry S. Longley built up membership by emphasizing programs for young adults and young families. To allow for more social activities, a Centennial Room complete with kitchen facilities was constructed in the basement in 1956.
DECLINE AND RENEWAL
In the 1960s, The Church of the Holy Trinity faced declining membership and pledge revenues and was forced to sell or lease several of its properties, including Holiday House. Nevertheless, in 1968 members rejected a developer’s offer to purchase and demolish the church building. The Church instead undertook major renovations to preserve and enhance the beauties of its historic building. Under the Rev. John Smart this initiative was continued through the Historic Holy Trinity Preservation Trust. New outreach ministries were launched, including a “ministry of Meals” to provide meals to the homeless, the homebound and people with AIDS. The Church also became host to Philadelphia’s chapter of Integrity, an organization advocating full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members in the life of the Episcopal Church.
These expansive and restorative efforts continued after 1999 under the Rev. Terence Roper, with additional renovation work and the beginning of a program called “Trinity Central” that opened the Church sanctuary to the community for several hours each day. Growth and momentum continued under The Rev. Alan Neale, who opened the church to a broader range of ages and welcomed those who were not members to be married in the church, ushering in new families. In 2016, the church called husband and wife team, The Reverends Rachel & John Gardner, to be their Rectors.
CONNECTING TO THE WIDER COMMUNITY
The Church of the Holy Trinity continually seeks to strengthen its ties and its usefulness to the wider community of Rittenhouse Square and Center City Philadelphia. In 2008 the Church undertook an ambitious plan to reconfigure the chancel, to make the space more accessible for worship and more flexible as a performance space. As a result, use of the Church by Philadelphia’s many performance groups has continued to grow. The Church has been opened to and used by civic and community groups, neighbors, and afterschool programs from the local public schools. We have also recently begun a partnership with The Sunday LOVE Project, who distributes meals and necessities to the underserved in LOVE Park every Sunday, and serves a sit-down meal in our Centennial Room on Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.
In 2009 The Church of the Holy Trinity celebrated its Sesquicentennial, marking 150 years of continual worship and ministry in the church on Rittenhouse Square. The year of festivities included performances, lectures, and guest preachers, culminating in a birthday ball gala and a festival eucharist, at which the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, was guest preacher and celebrant.
As we celebrate our rich and varied history, the church community continues to look forward with hope and anticipation to what the next 150 years will hold.