History of St. Paul's Chapel
In the mid-1700s, as Manhattan’s population began moving north, Trinity built two chapels in the mid-1700s: St. George’s in 1752 and St. Paul’s in 1766. St. George’s no longer exists (the congregation moved to a new building), but St. Paul’s stands at Broadway and Fulton Street. It is the only colonial-era church still in Manhattan.
An early historical account of construction of St. Paul’s describes both the elegance of the structure and the improbability of its location, which was considered remote at the time:
“The site of St. Paul’s Chapel was quite in the outskirts of the city. The same year in which the foundation stone was laid, the lot on which it stands had been ploughed up and sowed with wheat. When the building was finished, by the completion of the steeple in 1794, it was considered the most elegant and imposing church edifice in the city. The church lot extended in a beautiful lawn to the river, which at that time came up as far as Greenwich Street, and seen from the water, which it was intended to front, St. Paul’s surrounded by stately trees and a spacious churchyard, must have been very attractive to the eye.
“So stood the new Church, beyond the City limits away off in the fields, surrounded by groves and orchards, and hard by the broad, bright river; an object of surprise to the good burghers, who scrupled not to comment with just severity on the folly of that visionary set of men, the Vestry of Trinity Church, who had put so large and ornate a building in a place so remote and sequestered, so difficult of access, and to which the population could never extend!”
—From Wilburforce’s History of the American Church, in One Hundred and Fifty Years of St. Paul’s Chapel, 1916
The chapel is an elegant example of the Georgian Classic-Revival style and resembles the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. There is no known architect, but the master craftsman was Andrew Gauthier, who helped save the original Trinity Church from burning in a fire in 1750. According to practice common at the time, the chapel’s design was taken from architectural pattern books, which provided the basic dimensions and specifications. The chapel is built of Manhattan mica-schist with quoins of brownstone. The woodwork is handmade.
The Chapel and the Beginnings of a Nation
Ten years after St. Paul’s opened, the colonies were at war with Britain. In September, a dramatic event foreshadowed the destruction of the Revolutionary War: a fire that started downtown raged through the city, destroying approximately 500 buildings in one night, including Trinity Church. St. Paul’s Chapel was spared by a bucket brigade that doused the structure with water. With Trinity in ruins, St. Paul’s became the primary church until 1790.
Following his inauguration as the nation’s first president, in 1789, George Washington walked up Broadway to St. Paul’s for the service, attended by his wife, as well as both houses of Congress, attended services at Paul’s. The inauguration took place at Federal Hall, formerly New York’s City Hall, on Wall Street, a short walk from the chapel. Washington attended St. Paul’s for two years, while the newly created city of Washington DC was under construction and New York functioned as the nation’s capital. He sat in the specially designated Presidential Pew at St, Paul’s, as the main church had yet to be rebuilt after the Great Fire. (The reconstruction of Trinity Church, delayed by the advent of the war, was not completed until 1790.)
A page from the sermon preached after the Great Fire.
A Center of Ministry
In the years that followed, the chapel stood watch as New York was transformed as a tiny outpost of a far-flung empire into a world-class city.
In the second half of the 19th century, under the dynamic leadership of the Rev. Dr. Dix, St. Paul’s helped carry out the expanding mission of the parish. Innovative programs included a vocational school for girls, a home for aging women, classes to teach cooking and nutrition to immigrant women, societies for the care of communities, and a downtown relief association to counsel the sick and the jobless—all designed to meet the social needs of the rapidly expanding poor and immigrant population of New York City. A robust outreach ministry continues to be carried out by Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel today.
Over the course of its long history, St. Paul’s has also been the site of numerous historic visits and occasions, from memorials, commencements, and funerals to concerts and state visits. Some key events in the life of the chapel include:
1786: First commencement of Columbia University. The commencements of King’s College, which was founded by Trinity and became Columbia University, were held at St. Paul’s and occasionally Trinity for many years.
1789: George Washington, John Adams, and both houses of congress (which included future president James Madison and future vice president Elbridge Gerry) following their Inauguration in April 1789
1824: General Lafayette attends grand oratorio concert by New York Choral Society
1832: Consecration of four bishops at St. Paul’s during the General Convention. This was the first time that many had been consecrated at once.
1874: Pew rents begin to be phased out
1889: Visits by President Benjamin Harrison and Vice President Levi P. Morton; Ex-Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, for Washington Centennial on April 30, 1889.
1904: St. Paul’s begins holding services for night workers, like those in the near-by print shops on Park Row, at 2:30am on Sunday morning. The thought was that they got off work so late that they wouldn’t make it to regular morning church, so a service was held right when they were getting off work.
1910: Memorial Service for King Edward VII
1925: Memorial Service for the Queen Mother her Majesty Alexandra
1831: Funeral Service for James Monroe
1952: Visit of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands
1953: Memorial Service for Queen Mary
1954: Eleanor Roosevelt gave address at Special United Nations Service, “Service of Dedication to the Ideals and Aims of the United Nations.”
Eleanor Roosevelt's signature in the guestbook.
1983: A homeless shelter opens on the second floor of St. Paul’s Chapel and remained in operation for more than 20 years.
1989: Visit by President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush
2001: Mayor Rudy Guiliani gives his farewell address from St. Paul’s
2002: The Bell of Hope is given to St. Paul’s Chapel and the people of New York by the Lord Mayor and the city of London in remembrance of the attacks on September 11.
2006: Visits by President George W. Bush and Laura Bush and Senator Hilary Clinton, for fifth anniversary of 9/11
2011: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preaches at St. Paul’s Chapel on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
2016: The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, visits. The chapel undergoes extensive restoration and cleaning.
September 11 until Today
As the dust began to settle after the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it became apparent that something extraordinary had happened at St. Paul’s Chapel. The 235-year-old building had survived the attacks and collapse of the towers without a scratch or a pane of glass broken. During the eight and a half months of grueling work at Ground Zero, a new ministry spontaneously emerged at St. Paul’s. Volunteers—clergy, students, parishioners, nurses, massage therapists, relief workers, podiatrists, and ordinary people from all over the country—gathered to offer relief to the men and women working around the clock in the recovery effort. Read more about the chapel’s ministry after 9/11.
The chapel continues to host a wide variety of ministries, including a free Brown Bag Lunch program, the popular Bach at One concert series, worship services every Sunday, and neighborhood events. Today, St. Paul’s Chapel serves multiple communities, including a diverse and active congregation, residents of Lower Manhattan, and the more-than-one-million annual tourists that visit every year. It remains a steadfast presence in Lower Manhattan, representing faith, social justice, and community.
Click the links below to read some of our favorite stories about St. Paul's history and minsitries from the Trinity Archives: