A peek inside the restoration of New York’s historic Trinity Church

NEW YORK — Few houses of worship in the United States are steeped in as much history as is Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The church, part of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, dates back to 1698. Although that original structure is no longer there, the current version of the church dates back to 1846.

As Americans gather to celebrate Independence Day on Thursday, it is worth noting that the historic church — located just a block from the New York Stock Exchange — played a significant role during the American Revolution and in the lives of the colonists who would go on to found this country.

The church along what is now Wall Street was first chartered under King William III in 1697 after the British took over New Amsterdam from the original Dutch settlers. Since then, it has become an integral part of this country’s history. By the 1770s, New York City had become a strategic base for the British army following the departure of George Washington and the Continental Army shortly following the Battle of Brooklyn. Under British occupation, clergy were required to be Loyalists to the British crown.

Trinity Church was destroyed in the Great New York City Fire of 1776. With the war for independence complete, the church became a symbol of a new nation. Following his 1789 inauguration at nearby Federal Hall, Washington attended Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Chapel, located a few blocks away and today part of the Parish of Trinity Church. He continued to attend services there until the second Trinity Church was completely rebuilt in 1790.

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The third — and current — iteration of Trinity Church began construction in 1839 and was completed five years later. The church even temporarily held the title of being tallest building in the United States until 1869, when it was surpassed by St. Michael's Church in Chicago.

It was in May 2018 that the church temporarily closed, embarking on what it is calling a “rejuvenation process” that will cost nearly $100 million. With a year left to go, the church’s restoration is moving forward with the aim of upgrading the infrastructure and increasing the number of seats.

“Rejuvenating Trinity Church is part of our mission to provide a spiritual home for lower Manhattan — our parishioners, neighbors, workers and visitors,” said the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer, who serves as the church’s rector. “As a vibrant, diverse, and growing congregation, we are excited to undertake this work so that future generations also can cherish this remarkable church.”    

 The upgrades to the gothic revival church includes a new lighting system, restoring its stained-glass windows and installing panels in order to enhance the acoustic system.

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In February, The New York Times reported that Trinity Church has a $6 billion portfolio, mainly due to its various real-estate holdings. The church has an ownership stake in 12 area buildings.

The church’s Chapel of All Saints and surrounding grounds remain open during construction, where visitors can see the burial site of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, along with many soldiers who fought in the American Revolution. After Hamilton was shot in a dual with Aaron Burr in 1804 across the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, his body was taken to the church for burial. 

The last major restoration project took place in 1945. Some 2.5 million people visit each year, according to the church’s website, and increasingly so in recent years following the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Hamilton attended services at the church and it is also the final resting spot of his wife Eliza, son Philip, sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, and friend, Hercules Mulligan, a tailor-turned-spy for the colonists during the American Revolution. Others involved with the church included John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and former governor of New York, and Burr, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president.

The church also played a role in recent history. During the September 11 attacks, people in the area sought refuge from the smoke and debris after the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists. The church, which escaped destruction, became a symbol of hope during a bleak time in the nation’s history.

Trinity remains an important part of America’s past and present. For anyone coming to New York for the Fourth of July and the long holiday weekend, a visit to the churchyard remains a must. It is also worth putting on your list for a future visit once the church reopens to the public.

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.