1762 Historic Trinity Episcopal Church
AboutTen years after Col. William Craford laid out the town in 1752, Portsmouth Parish was built on Church Square. Portsmouth Parish served as the first Church of England for Norfolk County and was re-named Trinity Episcopal after the revolution. Brimming with more than 250 years of history, including that of Portsmouth, of Virginia, and of our nation, this modest edifice still houses an active, vibrant congregation.
A plaque on the north wall is dedicated to second rector Rev. John Braidfoot, who left British occupied Portsmouth to serve as chaplain of the Virginia Militia, and who survived that dreadful winter at Valley Forge. Trinity Churchyard is his final resting place, along with other Revolutionary War veterans, including aide to General Lafayette, Bernard Magnien and Virginia Navy Commodore James Barron. Veterans of the Quasi War with France and the War with the Barbary Pirates are also buried in the churchyard along with the sea captains who made the port famous.
After the Revolutionary War, the north wall of the church was rebuilt with granite from the fortification raised by the British during Benedict Arnold's occupation. The church is mentioned in two Hessian diaries, and the recast bell in the tower was cracked ringing in the victory at Yorktown.
Over time, a parish hall and expanded worship space were added to the original central rectangle with its barrel vaulted ceiling and clear glass windows. Trinity currently houses a painted and stained glass window collection that reads like a history of church glass! It includes three painted glass windows by Henry Sharp of New York ("the Tiffany of his time"), six by Lewis Comfort Tiffany himself, and a triptych of the Holy Family by White Friars, the most famous glass house in England during the 20th century..
The Sharp windows installed in 1859 with their "Catholic" imagery demonstrate Trinity's adherence to the Oxford Movement. The window by the pulpit picturing St. James the Greater was installed in the 1870s and may also be by Henry Sharp. All six of Trinity's Tiffany windows are from 1894 and appear on Tiffany's "pencil list". He considered one, of the angel appearing to the centurion Cornelius, among his best. When the magnificent Tiffany triptych entitled "The Resurrection" catches the shadows in the courtyard just right, Mary Magdalene's garment appears to move. Two small jewel-like Tiffany windows are in the vesting area.
Trinity also houses Hampton Roads' largest church organ, which can be heard regularly during worship services and at concerts throughout the year. Although its vibration can be felt, the tone of its largest pipe cannot be heard by most human ears. It is large enough for a small child to climb into!
The middle window on the north wall is dedicated to Captain Arthur Emerson, Hero of the Battle of Craney Island - one of the few land battles won by the Americans in the War of 1812. (This window was the original entrance to the church and pews were painted black in this portion of the nave and designated for the free and enslaved African Americans in the congregation.) Across the street at Prison Square, a cannon can be seen buried upside down in Emerson's honor, as was customary at that time upon the passing of an artillery officer.
In the bell tower is a plaque to Bob Butt, hero of the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1855. Portsmouth lost one-third of its population and its citizens were dying so rapidly that the shipyard stopped building ships and started making coffins! During a time when many enslaved had the opportunity to flee north, Butt remained in Portsmouth, choosing to dig graves day and night. A grateful Portsmouth purchased his freedom afterward, and he served as sexton of Trinity for 35 years.
The crew of the C. S. S. Virginia (the ironclad Merrimac) was blessed at the altar and the acting priest, Rev. John Wingfield, blessed the ship before the first battle of the ironclads. Fr. Wingfield's refusal to pray for the President of the United States during the Union occupation resulted in his being forced to sweep the streets of Norfolk with a ball and chain on his leg. During that occupation, the old box pews were removed and the church interior was converted into a hospital for wounded African American soldiers serving in the Union Army.
The once controversial "Confederate Window" installed after the war remembers officers from the congregation who died during that conflict. The inscription on the bottom pane, preserved in a predella and visible only during tours, was so offensive to the Union officers that the Secretary of the Navy said he would close the naval hospital and shipyard unless it was removed.
The original baptismal font from 1762 survives in the All Saints Chapel located in the Parish Hall. The altar is an old gravestone moved when the annex was built in 1892. The current stone angel baptismal font named "Elizabeth" was donated the following year. Above the font is a two-ton medallion plaque commemorating our nation's bicentennial Pictured is with a young girl representing the Church of England handing the Book of Common Prayer to a baby representing the Episcopal Church in America. When the wall was rebuilt to support the medallion's weight, a verger's wand, now mounted beside it, was found in the wall.
Nearby is an oval marker to the fifth rector of the church, called the "Sporting Parson" who started each sermon: "Do as I preach, not as I do."
Displayed on another wall is a gravestone cut in 1800 in London for a sea captain who lost his wife and children to a fever before he set sail. He was lost at sea the following year. The glass-encased Bible beside it was published in London in 1753 and its title page shows it was dedicated to the church at its founding in 1762.
The churchyard is open to the public most daylight hours, and interior tours can be arranged upon request.