The Church of the Holy Trinity — A Historical Landmark at Rittenhouse Square
The Church of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopalian Christian Church, is located next to Rittenhouse Square at 1904 Walnut Street and has been a fixture of Philadelphia’s Center City since its construction in 1857. The Church has remained unchanged, in its physical presence and in its message, during its 159 years of service. Scottish architect Josh Notman designed the massive building in the Norman manner, as “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, the church found a connection with the Quaker ideals that Philadelphia had been built on, specifically the quiet, personal worship that is so prevalent to the Quakers.
Notman sought to create a building that would inspire awe, but also attract the eyes of the common people –also in line with the wishes of the church’s founders. Included in the church’s brilliant visage are numerous stained glass windows – five by Louis Comfort Tiffany and one by Luc-Oliver Merson. Costing around $125,000 in total, the church was finished by 1859 and celebrated its first mass on March 27, 1859. (In comparison, the average wage for American carpenters – some of whom built the initial wood structure – was $2.63 a day, making the church a very expensive edifice.) The church also instituted a series of by-laws and principles in 1861, some of which have been modernized like “the pews shall be sold and let at the rates assessed upon them by the Vestry,” harking back to a time where pews were rented to parishioners.
Throughout the years of turmoil just before the Civil War, the Church of the Holy Trinity continued to follow its core principles under the Rev. Phillips Brooks, being a prominent supporter of the North from the beginning of the war. According to The History of the Church of the Holy Trinity: “This was the first public occasion on which the Episcopal Church took an open stand in favor of law and order in that great conflict.” Rev. Brooks also bookended the Civil War in his powerful eulogy for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, which American scholars repeated and cited for years to come. Brooks set a path for all future pastors to follow, and The History of the Church of the Holy Trinity describes him as “a John among the disciples. Glowing with perpetual youth, earnest and strong, joyous yet sympathetic, he seemed with eagle eye to court the light, and with strong wing to soar into the ineffable love of God.” The Church of the Holy Trinity passed his message and his stature as a preacher and conveyor of Christian truths on to successive pastors as the church continues to cite his homilies and lectures to this day.
Brooks proved to be an enormous influence on the Christian Church outside of his own parish through his pilgrimage to Bethlehem. While there, he wrote a poem that would later become the lyrics to the traditional Christmas tune, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The parish pianist set the poem to music. Because of its pride for the song, the church built a triptych on the wall behind the altar in 1942 that details the carol. The National Register of Historic Places added the Church of the Holy Trinity to its prestigious list in 1973, another example of the church’s prominence extending outside of the city into national awareness
The church’s mission is "In the Name of Christ to deepen our faith, to enlarge our community and to act on our beliefs.” The church’s official website notes the welcoming nature of its parishioners, along with its acceptance of people with varied beliefs. While that has remained stable, one changing factor is the Church of the Holy Trinity’s weekly attendance. At the time of construction, the church could fit up to 1,500 parishioners. Now the Church of the Holy Trinity has around 400 baptized members and an average Sunday mass attendance of 200 or so. The church looks for ways to continue to serve, such as the creation of “Joyful Noise” in 2009. “Joyful Noise” is a weekly service specifically adapted for families with younger children to worship together.
The Church of the Holy Trinity remains a pillar of religious fortitude and perseverance in modern Philadelphia. One hundred fifty nine years after its inception, it continues to adapt its mission to serve the changing needs of a changing city.
- Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia: charter and by-laws. 1861
- History of the Church of the Holy Trinity: 19th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia: 1857-1907
- The Church of the Holy Trinity website - http://htrit.org/
1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19103