Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 8 December 2021, 5:30pm

The building

Dating from 1857, the church is a sandstone structure in the Italianate Neo-Romanesque style. The architect was John Notman, who is credited with introducing Italianate architecture to the United States, and who designed dozens of churches and private homes throughout the Northeast. Notman also designed the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (now the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), which earned notoriety in the early 20th century for removing or mutilating ‘dangerous’ parts from its patients – as late as 1960, all patients had their teeth removed upon admittance. The church’s interior was intended from the start to reflect ‘low church’ sensibilities, but nevertheless features some outstanding stained glass, including five Tiffany windows and one by the French artist Luc-Olivier Merson, also known for his designs for French postage stamps and banknotes. Renovations begun in the late 19th century added more ‘high church’ embellishments. The interior was again renovated in 2008 to be more accommodating to performing groups.

The church

Holy Trinity is the birthplace of the beloved Christmas carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ penned in 1868 by the rector at the time, the Revd Phillips Brooks, and set to music by the church’s organist, Louis Redner. (Redner’s tune, known as St Louis, is different from the Forest Green tune more commonly heard in the United Kingdom and Ireland.) A triptych behind the altar illustrates the carol. Originally the church of the highest of Philadelphia’s high society, Holy Trinity fell on hard times during the 20th century as the wealthy folk moved to the suburbs, and was almost demolished in 1968. Saved from that fate, Holy Trinity today ministers to the community at large through numerous activities described on its website. I’ll just mention the Open Hearts Café, which provides food as well as clothing to the homeless. In these times of pandemic, in-person services are limited and are by reservation only, but all services are live-streamed.

The neighborhood

Holy Trinity sits on Rittenhouse Square, the park that forms the center of one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious neighborhoods, where elegant old brownstone houses co-exist with modern high-rise apartment and condominium buildings as well as commercial space. The Curtis Institute of Music, which numbers Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Jaime Laredo and Ned Rorem, to name only five, among its alumni, sits at the opposite end of the square from the church. Even before the 1960s, when the gay lifestyle began in earnest its hard-fought battle for acceptance by mainstream society, Rittenhouse Square was well known as a ‘cruisy’ safety zone for gay men and women.

The cast

The rector, who conducted the service wearing a purple dress and grey sweater. This is low church, after all.

What was the name of the service?

Candlelight Compline.

How full was the building?

Empty save for the rector. The service was live-streamed on YouTube, and I watched from home.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was just fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?


What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘This is Candlelight Compline for Wednesday, December 8, and our reading comes from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 11.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. The entire service was projected on-screen.

What musical instruments were played?

There was a guitar soundtrack playing softly in the background throughout.

Did anything distract you?

The guitar soundtrack.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Standard by-the-book compline. The rector read all of the service, including responses to the verses.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I’m afraid I didn’t think it was heavenly at all. It would have had a better chance of being so had the rector been suitably vested and assisted by at least one person (also suitably vested) to give the responses. That said, the appointed readings and prayers were rather calming and pleasant to hear and contemplate.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Again, I have to say the guitar soundtrack. And an ‘Alleluia’ escaped the rector’s lips at the end of the opening invocation. In Advent! Thankfully Miss Amanda had her smelling salts within easy grasp.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?


How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 — At another time, when a more fulsome service would be celebrated.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The rector taking the entire service, including the responses.

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