The history of Trinity Episcopal Church

In 1831, when Trinity Episcopal Church was founded, the town of Saugerties was just 20 years old. It was just beginning to thrive. Mirroring changes that were taking place through out the Northeast, Saugerties was entering the Industrial Revolution. The face of Saugerties began to change as factories and mills sprang up.

To understand the church, you need to know about Henry Barclay, possibly the most influential Saugertiesian to ever live.

Barclay was a Manhattan importer who moved to Saugerties with his wife Catherine in about 1825, according to “A History of Trinity Episcopal Church, Saugerties New York: the First 130 Years,” by Dr. Steve Shafer. Trinity is the oldest Episcopal Church in Ulster County.


As Shafer writes, this marked a, “daring career change [for Barclay] from importer to industrialist.”

Recognizing the importance of the Esopus Creek as a source of power for the mills and factories that were beginning to spring up, Barclay was the first to build a dam at the Esopus, near the Partition Street/9W bridge – which he also built. The creek was used to power an iron mill and a paper mill, arrayed on opposing shores.

Barclay partnered with Robert L. Livingston, who owned most of the land that now makes up the village, as well as his son-in-law, William Bayard Clarkson. Needing workers to man the factories and build the roads, Barclay imported workers from England and Ireland.

At the time, there was a clear religious and cultural divide between the land-owning class, much of which was English and Episcopalian, and the predominantly Catholic Irish and Italian workers. Barclay was a member of the former group. Thomas, his great-grandfather, was ordained in England and a minister in Albany, and his grandfather, Henry, was a minister at Trinity Church on Wall Street, New York City, according to Shafer.

“There was this class system in Saugerties,” said Joette Courselle, during a recent tour of the church.

Barclay built Trinity for those who were considered the upper class, and for the Catholic workers who were employed at the iron mill, the brick factories, and paper mill, he built Saint Mary’s of the Snow.

With help from John Watts Kearney, his brother-in-law, Barclay raised $1,000 from those he knew at Trinity Church in New York City to have a church built in Saugerties.

Prior to the construction of the church, Barclay would hold services and Sunday school in his home, located on Route 9W in the house that later became the Dragon Inn. At times there would be more than 100 people attending services at the Barclay home, according to Marjorie Block, president of the Saugerties Historical Society.

Trinity has had some memorable ministers, including Rev. Thomas Cole in 1879. Cole was the son of artist Thomas Cole, who founded the Hudson River School of Art. He was minister of the church for 40 years.


A special church and a friendly ghost

In addition to being the oldest Episcopal Church in Ulster County, Trinity has some of the most unique features of any church in the county — including its own ghost.

Louis Comfort Tiffany designed three windows in the rectory — yes that Tiffany. They were donated by the Overbagh family, who owned the Saugerties Coal and Lumber Company on Main Street.

Their daughter Gertrude married Frank Fuller, who was the church organist in 1912. Their son, Sheldon Fuller, 87, who still attends church services, said his father told him when he started the organ was water powered.

Another unique feature of the church is the William Morris stained glass window located the church’s chancel. Morris, a noted British socialist, painter, writer, and stained-glass designer, also did the stained glass at Boston’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The Vanderpoel family donated the window.

And like any old church that has a body in the basement, parishioners say a ghost haunts the building. Or at least that’s what Courselle and Karen Wurzel told me as they led me down to the basement tomb of Lady Mary Watts, the mother of Barclay’s wife.

She was interred in a 2 1/2 foot by 2 1/2 foot cement box in a far, dark corner of the church’s basement. She was a descendent of James Alexander, the first surveyor general of New Jersey. She was known as Lady Mary, and that’s the name inscribed on her tomb, Her father William was Lord Stirling, a brigadier general in George Washington’s army, according to Shafer.

Courselle and Wurzel said Lady Mary’s ghost haunts the church often “playing” with organist Bob Moore by turning off the lights he uses to read sheet music during Sunday services. She has also been known to shake the choirs’ pews.

“She makes the church special, and we think of her as a ‘friendly’ ghost,” Wurzel said. So while the church has plenty of unique features: Lady Mary’s ghost, the Tiffany windows, the Morris window, it’s really the people that make it great.

“We come from many backgrounds from many places across the country and the world, and we treat everyone like family,” said Wurzel..