Trinity Church Wall Street has been serving its neighborhood in Lower Manhattan since 1697, and when an institution is already into its fourth century, almost nothing is happening for the first time.
So as the present Trinity congregation temporarily assembles for most of its Sunday worship at St. Paul’s Chapel during the rejuvenation of the nave of the church, it’s helpful to remember that such temporary moves have happened before.
The first and longest period came during and after the Revolutionary War. Trinity Church burned practically to the ground in September 1776. St. Paul’s Chapel was relatively new at the time, only ten years old. It was a chapel of ease, an alternative worship space for people who lived outside the limits of the city, when land north of Wall Street was considered almost a frontier.
It was during this decade-and-a-half long period that St. Paul’s Chapel served, most famously, as a place of prayer for George Washington, on April 30, 1789, the day he was inaugurated first President of the United States. Worshipers eventually returned a few blocks south on Broadway to the second Trinity Church building, which was consecrated in March 1790.
Trinity parishioners would move out again after the structural integrity of the second church building became so suspect that the vestry decided, in 1838, to demolish it and rebuild. St. Paul’s, and perhaps some of the other chapels Trinity operated at that time, were used in lieu of Trinity until the third and present church building, considered the masterpiece of architect Richard Upjohn, was ready for worship on Ascension Day, Thursday May 21, 1846.
Trinity closed briefly and services were moved to St. Paul’s Chapel during the summer of 1977 for the painting, redecorating and relighting the interior of the church, and to update the sound system.
Within the memory of many of Trinity’s current parishioners, the church building was closed again for the first six months of 1990 so that the exterior walls could be cleaned of dirt and grime that had accumulated over almost a century and a half.
An even more recent instance of Trinity Church temporarily closing came on Tuesday September 11, 2001, date of the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. St. Paul’s Chapel, even closer than Trinity to the site of the attack, was not available for worship. The chapel was pressed into service for nine months as a place of rest and temporary sanctuary for those working the enormous rescue and recovery effort.
From Sunday September 16 until Sunday October 28, Trinity parishioners held their worship services a few blocks south at the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, better known as the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. There was some historical synergy there. Mother Seton, as she is called, is honored as the first Roman Catholic saint born on U.S. soil, but had grown up as an Episcopalian and a member of Trinity Church before she decided to convert. Seton later wrote that she made her conversion decision while sitting inside St. Paul’s Chapel.