Yesterday I drove up to Brooklyn, Connecticut to attend the historic Eucharist at the Old Trinity Episcopal Church. For the last six years or so, the congregants of Trinity Church has gathered on the Sunday after the Fourth of July for a travel back in time. This time-travel is not just because of the lack of electricity in an historic floorplan of this 1769 parish, but we used the liturgy from the 1760 Book of Common Prayer (similar to the 1662 BCP).
Scott Richards, the Senior Warden, said that they expect approximately 100 people to gather for the service – many of whom are interested in the building and drive from clear across the state.
While this service did feel a bit like a travel back in time, there were some key differences to yesterday’s service than what worship would’ve been like in the 1760s.
- First, there were women at the altar – all women. In 1760 and until 1974, women were not at the altar. (Women were first ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1974)
- Second, there was some electricity being used – mainly the recorded organ music playing from an iPad in the loft.
- Third, we had printed copies of our bulletin and section of the prayer book, and not the musty old copies of prayer books stashed in the balcony.
- Fourth and the most important, when Trinity Church was built, the balcony was designated for and occupied by slaves and servants of the congregants.
Old Trinity Church is the oldest standing Episcopal Church in Connecticut, and one of the oldest in the United States. Nicknamed “The Church in the Grove,” according to an 1892 article in the New England Magazine (thank you, Greg Farr, ECCT Archivist), Old Trinity Church was organized in 1769 by Godfrey Malbone and 19 other families in the Northeast corner of Connecticut. The land was donated by one of the organizing families and the “speedy work” of building the church fell on the servants and slaves of those wealthy families.
After the completion of Old Trinity Church, those servants and slaves were required to attend services and sit in the hot, bare-minimum-seating in the balcony.
When I arrived to the parish yesterday morning, I immediately found my way up to the balcony. Carved along the plywood railing and raw-wood benches are names, designs, bible verses, cartoons, and very detailed drawings done by the slaves and servants.
Of the dozens of carvings, two stuck out the most to me: slave ships and a depiction of a judgmental finger pointing at a figured dressed in what looks like clericals.
In her sermon, The Rev. Jane Hale, Missional Priest-in-Charge for Trinity Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, talked about these carvings to reoriented the congregation to the realities of what freedom looked like at the time Old Trinity Church was functioning. The freedom preached from the pulpit in 1770s meant something completely different to those sitting in the pews than those individuals sitting in the balcony. And, freedom today means something different to those who are oppressed and those responsible for the oppression.
The carvings hold the memory of the separation of freedom and what it meant to be human. The carvings are a reminder of a past we cannot and should not forget.
“New” Trinity Church, the current worshiping parish in Brooklyn, built in 1865, continues to honor and respect this preserved history. During the sermon, Jane invited all of us to travel back in time and “go up into the balcony and spend time looking at the carvings,” after the service.
Jane also said that the joint confirmation class in the Northeast Region spent hours roaming the balcony looking at the carvings. Trinity Church gathers at the old parish for Christmas services, and other services throughout the year.
The cemetery that wraps around the old church is still the burial grounds for Trinity Church, and include old graves of the wealthy families and the slaves and servants.
The Trinity Church congregation also opens the old parish during Halloween. Old Trinity Church has developed some folklore around paranormal activity, drawing in enthusiasts and local teens eager for a spooky encounter. To counteract and make light of these claims, Jane told me Trinity’s unofficial motto is: “No ghost here but the Holy Ghost.”
(Side note: I didn’t see a ghost while I was there, but there were some orbs in my pictures.)
Yesterday was a glimpse into the past and reaffirmation of the work being done in the present. Old Trinity Church and the community at the “new” Trinity Church, Brooklyn do not hide their past, but bring it to light as a way to learn, teach, and grow as a community.