A walk through the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Saugerties is an encounter with precious sacred objects and the stories of dedicated congregants, artists, and notable benefactors over its nearly 200 years. A very large 1857 Bible sits on a stand behind the pulpit, its pages almost too delicate to turn. To the front of the pulpit is a memorial to the Rev. Thomas Cole, the son of the pioneering Hudson River School artist. The younger Cole served as Trinity’s rector from 1879 to 1919. In the church’s parish hall, the light streaming through the Tiffany-style window yields a golden gleam over a mountain scene that mimics the golden sunsets of the Catskills in the distances beyond the church.
On Saturday, June 23, visitors will have an opportunity to tour the stately 1831 Trinity Episcopal Church at 32 Church Street when the congregation opens its doors for the Sacred Sites Open House weekend. From10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 visitors can take in the church through self-guided tours, with congregation members present.
During the New York Landmarks Conservancy event, dozens of historic ecclesiastical sites throughout New York State — churches, synagogues, temples and other spiritual sites — will welcome visitors for tours (guided or self-guided) and related programs. The Landmarks Conservancy, in concert with many sponsors — partnering preservation, civic, and professional groups, and religious entities in New York State — is holding its 12th annual Open House after a hiatus that the Covid pandemic caused in 2020 and 2021. Through the Open House, congregations and groups open their worship spaces and spiritual sites so that the public can experience the rich history and spiritual presence, majestic architecture, extraordinary art, and dynamic culture of the sites. The event highlights the services and programs that the religious institutions provide to communities and the importance of continuing to preserve these sacred spaces.
Trinity Episcopal Church, which is the oldest Episcopal Church in Ulster County, demonstrates these themes in very fitting ways. The congregation’s founding and church construction intertwine with the establishment and beginning years of the village of Saugerties (known as the village of Ulster until it was renamed Saugerties in 1855). Since then, the parish has flourished and persevered through setbacks, even emerged better at times. The dignified church, its rectory and parish hall, and lovely setting embody that history and the congregation’s commitment through the present.
The stained glass windows
Undoubtedly, the church’s most stunning feature is the eight-panel, stained glass window at the front of the church that artist and philosopher William Morris’ London firm designed and created in 1874. Yet, a church tour allows an appreciation of much more in its furnishings, portraits, and the remaining stained glass windows, as I understood in walking the church, parish hall, and grounds with Linda Adorno, a member of the church’s Vestry. Adorno has been a member of Trinity Episcopal for 44 years, since moving to Saugerties in 1978. She and others help keep the church as a resilient spiritual, physical, and community presence, including the Rev. Charles Blauvelt; Stephen Shafer, the church Warden, who has also written a history of the church’s first 130 years; and Robert Moore, who has been the church organist for some 53 years.
Tracing its roots
Trinity Episcopal Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, traces its roots to the early 19th century era of Ulster County’s budding villages and the industrial development. Henry Barclay was a New York City-based importer who made a “daring career change” to industrialist, as Shafer wrote in his church history. Barclay saw opportunities in obtaining the water rights on the Esopus Creek, built a dam on the creek, and established a paper mill in 1827 and the Ulster Iron Works in 1828. Barclay, a keen businessman and a man steeped in the Episcopalian religion, intended to foster a “model village,” complete with a bridge over the Esopus Creek, hotel, and churches. Along with his wife Catherine Watts Barclay and brother-in-law John Watts Kearny, he co-founded the Trinity congregation and built Trinity Episcopal Church in 1831-1832. Both Barclay and his wife had ties to Trinity Church in New York City.
Barclay encouraged the English iron workers he had brought in from England to attend services at the Episcopal Church. He also built, starting a couple of years later in 1833, a Catholic Church – St. Mary of the Snow – for the Irish immigrants who worked in the village mills, a parish that remains today as St. Mary of the Snow, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist.
Many a driver may well not give Trinity Episcopal Church a thought as they round the 90-degree turn of busy Route 32/9W. However, in the 1830s infant village, the church property inhabited a prominent point on the road between Kingston and Saugerties. The front portico afforded a view of the Hudson River. The church’s rear grounds looked out to a picturesque vista of the Catskill Mountains — a view still visible and serving as a backdrop for an inviting space these days for outdoor weddings or other gatherings.
In the church’s features and furnishings, visitors can find architectural history that reflects America’s transformation in styles and taste during the 19th century. In the early decades of the 19th century, Classical Revival architecture dominated in a young nation seeking to emulate the solidity of the Greek and Roman empires. Ralph Bigelow is said to have designed Trinity Episcopal in the form of an ancient Greek temple, with fluted Doric columns and a triangular pediment, according to architectural historian William Rhoads in his book, Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History and Guide. It was among the first in Ulster County to be designed in the ancient Greek form.
In 1867, a fire caused significant damage to the southern end of the church. By this time of the early Victorian Age, Gothic Revival dominated ecclesiastical design. In the early 1870s, the parish brought in Edward Tuckerman Potter, a prominent Gothic Revival architect, to fashion a new chancel, the area around the altar where the clergy leads a service. Potter’s work resulted in many of the features — particularly the William Morris stained glass window — and furnishings that one sees in the chancel today.
The central window is both historically significant and remarkably beautiful. It was the first stained glass window by William Morris’ firm — Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. — that an American client commissioned. Morris, who became the foremost proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement eschewing mechanization and emphasizing craftsmanship, designed and supervised the crafting of the window. It depicts scenes of Christ’s life, as the Gospels related, as well as angels of varied posture and expression holding scrolls with Latin inscriptions. The panels’ vivid and varied reds, blues, and greens; evocative facial expressions; and incredible textures, from flowing robes to muscular forms, are striking.
All in all, the window’s arrival in the U.S. caused quite a stir in New York City newspapers, and it was exhibited in both London and New York before those responsible for it transported it to Saugerties. The window was a very expensive purchase at the time at $3,000. The church’s purchase occurred thanks to a donation of longtime supporter Else Vanderpoel, in honor of her late husband, Judge Aaron Vanderpoel, who had died in 1870, and family. At the time, British glasswork was considered superior to North America’s glasswork. The London firm of Powell and Co. produced this glass, and many admired the firm’s work “for its jewel-like brilliance and subtle color variations,” according to Florence Boos, a University of Iowa professor, general editor of the William Morris Archive, and an expert in Victorian humanities and culture, writing an article on the Trinity Episcopal window in the fall 2016 issue of Useful and Beautiful, a journal of William Morris scholarship.
In experiencing the church’s interior, it can be quite easy to become mesmerized by the central window behind the altar. Yet Adorno points out other treasured features, furnishings, and inscribed memorials that enhance the sense of this church’s history and art. Many furnishings that renowned architect Potter designed remain and reveal his signature elaborate Victorian ornamentation. The slender lectern, for example, has four intricately carved wooden images that represent the evangelists – Matthew as a winged man, Mark as a winged lion, Luke as a winged ox, and John as an eagle. A stone wall tablet honors co-founders Henry and Catherine Barclay, and John Watts Kearny, who died within several weeks of each other, in December, 1850 and January, 1851. It is inscribed in part:
“They were lovely and pleasant in their lives
And in death, they were not divided.”
The parish hall
Last but certainly not least in any tour of the complex is the parish hall: It has a set of Tiffany-style windows, a triptych that Rudolph Geissler of the New York City firm Lederle and Geissler executed. The Overbagh family donated these windows in 1922 in memory of a son who had died, John C. Overbagh. The serene scene of blue-green mountains in the distance set against a variegated sky above, deep purple irises in the front, and a brook running through the center flanked by two trees, matches well with this church’s setting as a peaceful place in the valley with mountains in the distance.
As the New York Landmarks Conservancy emphasizes in its Open House weekend, these spiritual places are not relics of the past but ever-alive sites that continue to serve their communities in the 21st century. Certainly, this is true of Trinity Episcopal Church, which remains an active Saugerties parish with a committed, albeit relatively smaller congregation than in the prior century.
The repairs and upkeep of an 1831 building and the other parts of the complex are constant and highly demanding in costs and time. The examples that Adorno cites as she walks the church properties are quite a litany: finding and obtaining a contractor who can do historic painting at a reasonable cost; ensuring that the organ remains in good shape by having each pipe removed, cleaned, and put back in place; dealing with some drivers who have parked very large trucks over a newly paved church parking lot, damaging it; and much more.
As shown by its participation in the Sacred Sites Open House, the parish is active in its community outreach. In the present day, it seeks to be inclusive. Parishioners and the church’s clergy in recent years have contributed efforts to help those in financial need, to work in ameliorating hunger, and to join with others in the causes of social justice. Early in the Covid pandemic, for example, Trinity Episcopal donated significant funds to the Saugerties and Ulster County hunger relief and resilience programs. The parish regularly provides support and parishioners’ designated donations to help those in need.
The parish is also working with the Episcopal Diocese on initiatives to enhance community and attract young people. To remain vital, it’s crucial to look to the future, not just celebrate the past, as the Trinity congregation is not that far off from its 200th anniversary in 2031. As Adorno summed up its important stance to be an inclusive parish, “In order to be a growing church, you have to be welcoming to all.”
Such is the spirit of the Sacred Sites Open House weekend and Trinity Episcopal Church’s invitation to the public.
For more information about the Sacred Sites Open House and the Trinity Episcopal Church in Saugerties, visit https://nylandmarks.org/sacred-sites-open-house/, https://www.trinitychurchsaugerties.org/.
Susan DeMark is a writer who explores architecture, history, and nature through her Mindful Walker stories, blog, and walking tours.