Historic Structures

Trinity Church, Southport Connecticut

Date added: April 8, 2011 Categories: Connecticut Church Gothic Revival

Trinity Church of Southport was designed by Bridgeport and Cincinnati architect Albert C. Nash and erected during the years 1854-56. Because of the building's near total destruction by wind during a tornado on January 1, 1862, the church was completely rebuilt as originally planned, with a few structural alterations. Trinity is an excellent work of early Gothic Revival church architecture in wood, patterned after Ithiel Town's model Trinity Church (1814-17) in New Haven and Benjamin Latrobe's Christ Church (1808) in Washington, D.C. This building was the fifth church erected by the Episcopal Society of Fairfield; the first was built in Mill Plain in 17^5 when the Congregational Faith and Order was still the established church of Connecticut (remaining so until the early 19th century).

A Building Committee of five Parish members was appointed on March 18, 1854 to supervise the construction of the church. This committee consisted of Moses Bulkley, Jonathan Godfrey, Augustus Jennings, William Bulkley and Allen Nichols.

As originally constructed during 1854-56 the church building was rectangular with a projecting central vestibule at the front and a chancel at the rear, and measured forty feet (three-bay front) by one-hundred feet. Erected upon a stone foundation, the main auditorium section rose two stories and was supported by a timber frame. The square frontal tower, rising two stories above the gable ridge with stylized Gothic pinnacles defining each of the four corners, was topped by a tall, slender polyganol steeple. At the base a wide Tudor arched doorway, leading into the vestibule, was flanked on either side by matching Tudor doorways. Lancet windows filled with plain glazing punctuated the three bays at the second level. All openings were topped by Gothic drip moldings. Cost to build totaled $13,278.41

On the evening of January 1, 1862 a tornado came through, Southport, striking the church's steeple and blowing it down through the roof. Because the destruction was so complete, the edifice had to be virtually rebuilt. John H. Sherwood, Trinity's Parish Clerk wrote on January 1: "At evening the wind changed to northwest and increased to a fearful gale and near the hour of Ten when all was quiet except the raging wind the beautiful spire of the church yielding to the blast fell upon the Building crushing it so badly that a more complete wreck could not be portrayed." Rev. Edmund Guilbert recounted the event in Annals of an Old Parish (1898, p. 128). "The destruction of the Church proved to be complete. The east wall would also have fallen quite as far but for the interposition of a venerable oak, which served as a prop to hold it up. Singular to relate, the organ was unharmed, as was the altar within the chancel; and the great window of stained glass above it."

To the Parish's credit, they began the process of rebuilding the church within the week.

Historic Events:
Roger Ludlowe, a prominent member of the New Haven Colony, had founded Fairfield in 1638-39 upon the principle of political autonomy, creating a form of town government which, in the 17th century, invited religious diversity. However, within the legal framework created by the colonial General Assembly, church and state were a seamless web and ecclesiastical and civil affairs of any province were inextricably bound together. Because the only faith which was permitted in public worship in Connecticut was the Congregational Faith and Order, all inhabitants were taxed by civil authorities for the support of the established church. Therefore, despite Ludlowe's hope for religious toleration in Fairfield, Congregationalism remained in place as the official faith. The liberal views of Fairfield townspeople were repeatedly dismissed by the conservative General Assembly.

This was especially trying for members of the Church of England who settled in Fairfield. They were compelled to support through taxation an institution to which they had no emotional attachment. Beyond this, they paid an additional psychological cost because their allegiance to the Anglican church clashed with the state's intolerance of religious diversity. Throughout the second half of the 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th, Fairfield Episcopalians continued to strive for religious freedom. The easing of frustration and persecution came in May 1727. Members of the Anglican Church of Fairfield petitioned the General Assembly stating that ten of their number had been imprisoned for not honoring taxes levied to support the Congregational Order, and requested that they be freed from paying taxes. In response, the Assembly passed an act providing that taxes collected from Episcopalians should be paid to Episcopal missionaries. This was the first effective step towards religious toleration in Connecticut. Ultimately, the consequence of the state's grudging decision to tolerate religious diversity was the separation of Church and State.

The first church of the Episcopal Society of Fairfield was erected in 1725 in Mill Plain, during the rectorship of Rev. Samuel Johnson. This structure was actually built with the intention of being a temporary home due to Episcopalians' precarious status within the community at this time. With their growing strength, the inhabitants voted at a Town Meeting in July 27, 1738 to give "liberty to the members of the Church of England" to build a meetinghouse "on the highway near the Old Fairfield gate, about 80 rods eastward from the Prime Society's Meeting House." The edifice was erected that year.

On the night of July 8, 1779, during the American Revolution, Fairfield was burned and ravaged by Tory Loyalists of Rhode Island who landed at the Mill River harbor, destroying nearly all village property. The New London "Gazette" reported on August 4, "All the town from the bridge towards Stratford to Mill River (a few houses excepted) was consumed." Rev. Edmund Guilbert wrote of the insurrection in Annals of an Old Parish (1898): "In the course of the night, several houses were consumed and nearly all were plundered. Early the next morning the conflagration became general; over two hundred buildings, forty-eight stores and many barns, were turned to smoking heaps of ruins. As a climax, on leaving, the enemy set fire to everything that up to that time had escaped the flames. Both houses of worship, the Episcopal and the Congregational, were burned to the ground." Trinity parish was again homeless. Not until 1789 was the congregation economically able to erect a new church to replace the one that burned. The building, located at Mill Plain, was dedicated September 5, 1790.

In time Southport gradually regained its lost prosperity, while also expanding numerically with the increase in harbor trade on the Mill River. Because of a growing Episcopalian congregation, a new parish chapel was begun in 1832 and completed in 1835. While the main church was in Mill Plain, Southport's central location within Fairfield and its own economic and demographic growth, drew the largest numbers to the new chapel. Unfortunately, the wooden porticoed structure was destroyed by fire on March 11, 1854, thereby initiating the plans for a new Trinity church, the structure which originally stood at the corner of Pequot Road and Main Street.

Over-all dimensions: The two-story rectangular structure with a projecting central vestibule at the front and a chancel at the rear, measures 40' (three-bay front) x 100'.

Floor plan: Simple rectangular auditorium plan with a central seating section flanked on either side by an aisle and gallery. A projecting chancel extends at the rear.