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Holy Trinity History

Founding and Beginnings

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity was founded on January 27th, 1868, by New York City Lutherans committed to a public ministry of Word and Sacrament in the English language. In 19th century New York, the Lutheran faith was still one of immigrants who mainly came from central Europe and Scandinavia, and accordingly the vast majority of Lutheran churches in New York City were defined by the language spoken by their respective congregations. The New York Times, in an announcement for the church’s 25th anniversary proceedings, noted that there was only one other English Lutheran church on the island at the time of the church’s founding: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. James, founded in 1827. In 1938, the congregation of St. James was folded into that of Holy Trinity, making Holy Trinity the oldest English Lutheran church in New York City today.

The first pastor of the congregation was the Rev. Dr. Gottlob Frederick Krotel, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and native of Germany who came to the United States at the age of four. His first service conducted for the congregation of Holy Trinity was that of Easter Sunday, 1868. He would go on to serve as pastor of Holy Trinity for 27 years, and over the course of his pastorate would grow the church into a notable congregation, one large enough large enough to sponsor two missions: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Epiphany, on the East Side, and Advent Lutheran, on the West Side.

For the first 30 years of its existence, the church occupied a plot of land in what is today the Flatiron section of Manhattan, on at 47 West 21st Street street between 5th and 6th avenues, in a building that was originally built for St. Paul’s Dutch Reformed Church of New York City. The congregation initially rented the building, and by 1867 had grown such that they were able to incur a debt of $32,000 for the purchase of the 21st street building, and for the cost of erecting a parsonage in the adjacent lot.

From Chelsea to Central Park West

In 1896, Rev. Krotel accepted a call as pastor of Advent Lutheran, which he had helped found as pastor of Holy Trinity, and where would serve until his death in 1907. On June 7, 1896, his replacement, the Rev. C. Armand Miller, was installed as pastor of the congregation. The New York Times, in their coverage of the installation, noted that Holy Trinity “is one of the wealthiest churches of this denomination in the city, and a large and fashionable congregation attended the installation ceremony.”

It was under Rev. Miller that the church would make its fateful move uptown. In February of 1902, the church purchased a lot at the corner of Central Park West and 65th Street, which remains the church’s home to this day. At that time, sheep still grazed on the aptly named Sheep Meadow, and the Upper West Side was a rapidly developing yet still relatively remote part of the city. The 21st street building was sold that same month, and with the funds from this sale, as well as a healthy subscription campaign on the part of the congregation, construction on the church’s new home began. For the interim two years, the church held its worship services in a rented hall at the 57th Street YMCA. Construction of the church was delayed by “labor issues,” which are referred to in both church records and in public accounts of the construction. However, by 1904, those issues had been resolved and the church was completed in time for a grand consecration ceremony on May 15, 1904. The Times reported the following scene:

The church was crowded even to the organ loft with the 690 members, their friends, and well-wishers, and many who sought admission were turned away. Among those who had seats of honor were the eleven survivors of the eighty original members. In celebration of the completion of the church edifice, a four-day celebration was arranged, the services being of the most simple character…The architecture is of the thirteenth century Gothic style. The building resembles La Sainte Chapelle of Paris, but the structure is almost entirely of steel, including its two towers and steeple…The first service in the new church began at 11 o’clock in the morning…the sermon was delivered by the Rev. C. A. Miller. The musical programme was prepared by Emanuel Schmauk, the organist and director of the choir. The consecration service was in the afternoon…the Rev. H.E. Jacobs in his sermon emphasized the fact that the church was not only a place of worship and the spiritual home of its flock, but also that it was a landmark to call to the attention of the hurrying crowds that there was something higher than worldly gain.

Holy Trinity in the 20th Century

The story of the church over its next 100 years is very much that of New York City and of American Protestantism in the 20th Century: growth, decline, and renewal. It was home to a number of highly regarded pastors, including the Rev. Dr. Paul Scherer (1920-1945), whose sermons were frequently quoted in the New York Times and who went on to become a professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. Robert D Hershey (1953-1974), who appeared regularly on nationally broadcast faith-based programs such as NBC’s “National Radio Pulpit” and ABC’s “Sunday Vespers.” It was under Rev. Hershey’s pastorate that Holy Trinity would see the establishment of what would grow into a flagship ministry for the church: Bach Vespers.

Founded in 1968, the church’s 100th year, Bach Vespers was launched with the mission of performing the sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach within a context true to the original performance practice of Bach’s day: in a church, within a liturgical setting, and on the appointed day for the cantata to be performed in the church calendar. Bach Vespers quickly grew into a New York cultural landmark, and the tradition of Sunday afternoon services featuring world-class historically informed performances of Bach continues to this day, reflecting the rich musical and liturgical tradition that has been passed down to today’s Lutherans.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the founding of two social service ministries that continue today: H.U.G. (Humans for Understanding and Growth) and the Shelter. H.U.G. was founded to provide a safe and welcoming space on Saturdays for those with mental illness and socialization issues, many of whom were rendered homeless or destitute after changes to New York state housing policies towards the mentally ill in the 1970s. Shelter was founded in the 1980s to address the city’s ongoing homeless problem, and is operated in conjunction with the New York Department of Homeless Services.

Holy Trinity Today

Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity is a growing, diverse, welcoming congregation that looks both to be a faithful steward of the gifts, resources, and traditions that have been bestowed upon us; a home for the Lutheran tradition in New York City; and most importantly, a place where Gospel of Jesus Christ is heard, taught, learned, and lived. Our story is one of God working in our midst for the sake of the world; we encourage you to join us in the mission that we share. Click here to learn more about joining us for an upcoming worship service.