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December 14, 2018

History Lesson: Inside Trinity Church

If you’ve walked by the World Trade Center Complex recently, or even lingered around the blocks near Wagner Battery Park, you’ve probably passed Trinity Church. It’s one of those iconic downtown institutions that have commanded such a respect over the years that its presence continues to invite both locals and tourists not just to worship, but to find a peaceful moment in the middle of downtown New York. This historic parish church is more than just a sightseeing spot. It’s actually a traditional high church in the Episcopal Diocese of New York with an active worldwide Anglican communion. Let’s go inside.

Located near the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church has been significant to New York City’s history for over 300 years. The story goes that in 1696, Governor Benjamin Fletcher approved the purchase of land in Lower Manhattan by the Church of England for construction of a new church. The parish received its charter from King William III on May 6, 1697 with a land grant at an annual rent of 60 bushels of wheat. The first rector was William Vesey (for whom nearby Vesey Street is named), who served for 49 years until his death in 1746.

The first iteration of Trinity Church was a modest rectangular structure with a gambrel roof and small porch. It was constructed in 1698, on Wall Street, facing the Hudson River. The church was destroyed in the Great New York City Fire of 1776, which started in the Fighting Cocks Tavern and destroyed nearly 500 buildings and houses, and left thousands of New Yorkers homeless. Construction on the second Trinity Church began in 1788 and was consecrated in 1790. It was built facing Wall Street and was 200 feet tall – both longer and wider than its predecessor. Its size was beneficial to the growing population of the city. During that time, President Washington and members of his government often workshopped there, such as John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. However the church was torn down after being weakened by severe snow during the winter of 1838.

The third and current Trinity Church began construction in 1839 and was finished in 1846. Its soaring Gothic Revival spire was finished off with a gilded cross and dominated the skyline of lower Manhattan. It was a welcoming beacon for ships sailing into New York. In 1843 the church’s expanding parish was divided to better serve the needs of its congregants. The newly formed Grace Church was created on Broadway at 10th Street while the original Trinity Church still stands today. At the time, it held the title of the tallest building in the United States, which was replaced in 1883 by the Brooklyn Bridge.