In December 1812, the theocracy that was still New Haven for the first time voted to let a church of another denomination – the Episcopalians, descendants of the dreaded and reviled Anglican Church of England – build a house of worship on the Green. And that’s how the Constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state began to come to pass in our now (most of the time) religiously tolerant state and burg.
That’s at the heart of the story that Elizabeth DePiero, Peg Chambers (pictured) and their fellow parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church want to tell on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for their beautiful Ithiel Town-designed church at Temple and Chapel streets.
Thursday morning Chambers got dressed up as a fine middle-class woman of 1814 might look in simple muslin with two small blue “money bag” purses.
Her friend Elizabeth DePiero wore a lace blouse and velvet jacket of the kind a wealthier woman might wear, maybe a wife of one of the many merchants who lined Chapel Street in New Haven, booming economically despite the ongoing blockade of the harbor being conducted by the British.
They were giving a reporter a preview of the procession they will participate in Saturday morning. Its aim is to kick off the two years of bicentennial hoopla and programs marking the period from the laying of the cornerstone to the completion of the church in 1816.
The procession begins at 10:30 on Saturday at Temple and Chapel where the first Trinity Episcopal was built in 1752, roughly where the T-Mobile store stands today.
“Benjamin Franklin would have called me a ‘middler,’” said Chambers, an architect by training and a member of the church’s history ministry.
“I represent the middle class, the backbone of the republic,” she said.
That republic, though, still tolerated its states like Connecticut favoring one Christian denomination—or faith—over another.
In New Haven, the Puritans and their Congregationalist descendants had it all sealed up. So only Center Church and its Congregationalist offshoots were permitted on the Green.
Early Episcopalians were even called, with a touch of derisiveness, “churchmen” by the Congregationalists. That’s because Center Church was initially called not a church but a “meeting house,” said Neil Olsen, another member of the history ministry and the church historian.
The invitation to build on the Green came in part because New Haven was a booming merchant town. Merchants of both religious persuasions were getting to know each other not only on the Long Wharf and in the counting houses but also at the (still operating) Hiram Masonic Lodge No. One, the first of its kind in New Haven.
Some of those Masonic symbols, including the triangle and the all-seeing eye, are on the original wood panels from the 1752 church now installed, along with the original altar, in the vestibule of the “new” Trinity.
Those will also be on Saturday’s tour.
“Sixty percent of male church membership in 1814 belong to the lodge. That was across socioeconomic lines,” said Olsen.
It’s under-appreciated how significant shared Masonic membership was in the religious democratizing of New Haven, he added.
The road to religious toleration was not an easy one. It of course involved politics, with merchants of both denominations so hating the British blockade, there was almost a Connecticut secession. Finally in 1818 a new state constitution was written; it granted for the first time official equality to all religious denominations.
Inviting the Episcopal church to share the Green with the Congregationalists in 1812, which had been denied since the parish was founded in 1723 with a tiny house church, was “symbolically very significant,” said Chambers.
“Let The Rafts Go Through!”
When the church started building and had to float its timbers for the roof beams down the Connecticut River, along the Sound and into the harbor, permission had to be secured from the blockading British fleet.
Its commander reportedly quipped, “If there is any place on earth that needs religion, it is this New Haven. Let the rafts go through!”
Trinity was built in the international Gothic style, a first for the young American republic, to “separate itself from the more urbane” and, for the era, modernist style of Center Church, also being rebuilt at this time by Ithiel Town, said Chambers.
“It was saying [architecturally], ‘We are different and legitimate,’” she added.
Other delightful tidbits the Trinity historians will have on hand include a discourse on the the trap rock from East Rock, which Eli Whitney sold the church. The trap rock was more durable than granite and ever-changing in different light, but, alas, with enough lead particles in it to attract lightning, and cause damage, said Olsen.
The tour will also include the inside of the church—it comes with a commemorative service—featuring three exquisite Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows, sculptures by Lee Lawrie, best known for his statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, and Aeolian-Skinner organ.
You will also learn that not only did the Common Proprietors of the Undivided Lands of the Green give Trinity Episcopal property for the church; they also permitted the newcomers to own a perimeter around their church the width of two oxcarts (pictured).
That’s about 16 feet, said Olsen.
No word yet on whether the tour will include the oxcart portion.