Trinity Church has been a fixture on Market Street in Bethlehem since the late 1860s, when clergy from the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, located on the South Side, established a Sunday school in response to the need for an increased Episcopal presence on the North Side of the city. The new church, built on donated land for $4000 and furnished for $2000, was completed by Christmas of 1871, the day on which the Sunday School presented its first Christmas pageant. The building was formally consecrated on January 16, 1872. The Rt. Rev. Mark Anthony De Wolfe Howe, the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, proclaimed the building to be, “a model of durability, convenience, cheapness and taste.” The church duplicated the floor plan of the Cathedral, thus showing the connection between the two churches. Although the Nativity Vestry had earlier resolved to separate the two parishes, formal separation did not occur until November 22. and several members of the Nativity Vestry continued to serve both churches.
During the years 1880-1928, Trinity continued to flourish and grow. Its Sunday school enrollment topped 200 students, with a total membership of some 400 persons. The physical plant was expanded and renovated; these changes included the additions of a parish house, a gymnasium, a heating system, and the bell tower, as well as several cosmetic and structural changes to the nave. Trinity’s traditions of involvement in the wider community and strong lay leadership were also developing during this time. For example, the church provided relief for the sick and poor during the smallpox epidemic in 1882. And one rector, the Rev. Julian D. Hamlin, found out the hard way that making significant changes without the input of the congregation at-large was not a good idea: the vestry demanded his resignation after he introduced new liturgical practices “by fiat.”
1928-1968 were also years of change around Trinity. While they were marked by the service of Trinity’s longest-tenured rector, the Rev. Dr. Merrill Miles Moore, they saw extensive renovation to the physical plant. The most notable addition was the current three-story office wing, complete with Sunday school classrooms, offices, choir room, chapel, and sexton’s apartment. It was during Dr. Moore’s tenure that the music program at Trinity was also firmly established. Moore called Marvin Beinema to serve as organist and choirmaster for the newly established Choir of Men and Boys, a position Mr. Beinema held for 35 years. Trinity’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ was installed in 1955, following alterations to the chancel and choir area to accommodate the new instrument and its supporting equipment.
As it was across the Episcopal Church as a whole during the 1970s, changes in leadership swept through Trinity during that time as well. The rector who followed Dr. Moore, the Rev. Alexander C. Zabriskie, instituted the current system of electing term-limited vestry members from the congregation at large. Lay-led initiatives in social service programs and ministries grew especially strong and were zealously supported by the Rector. Trinity began monthly Sunday dinners for those without families, sponsored Vietnamese refugees, and started a ministry in Bethlehem’s Northeast public housing area. In the winter of 1982, Trinity opened a soup kitchen on the streets of Bethlehem, serving hot soup and bread to the needy from the back of a station wagon. Notably, women were no longer relegated to supporting roles. They began to take on increasing responsibility for the Christian formation and outreach programs. Some of the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Bethlehem, including the Rev. Joan Shelton and Canon Jane Teter, were raised up by Trinity as well.
Trinty’s role in community outreach increased exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s. The Soup Kitchen expanded to take up residence in the parish hall five days a week. Under the leadership of its coordinator, Deacon Liz Miller, it currently serves an average of 150 hot meals every day and provides limited social-services support to guests. The parish has also played a leading role in establishing ministries throughout Bethlehem to serve the underprivileged members of the community. Most recently these efforts have centered on helping to establish an emergency sheltering system for homeless residents during the winter months. In the past, they have also included a number of programs to assist single mothers and children. Many of these initiatives have become independent, self-sustaining entities, though it is not unusual to find Trinity parishioners still involved in some capacity.
The first several years of the 21st century have likewise seen some degree of change at Trinity. While the parish’s involvement in the wider community has continued to be a hallmark of its common life, how it does business is vastly different from earlier times. Electronic communications and several “high church” liturgical practices were adopted by the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, the current Bishop of Rhode Island, during his tenure as rector. The role of women in the parish has continued to grow, culminating in the calling of the Rev. Laura Howell as rector in 2007. Major alterations to the buildings and grounds in the past few years have included the installation of air conditioning in the nave, repairs to the foundation of the building, and the addition of a memorial garden in the front of the church. The organ was also extensively repaired in 2011, restoring the instrument to its full capacity to, “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Trinity’s music department and children’s programs have also enjoyed a period of rejuvenation, with multiple additions to the staff and programming in both areas.
Mother Laura retired at the end of 2017 and the search committee is currently working to find and call a new rector for the parish.
– partially adapted from a somewhat oral history of Trinity Church, as told by Marius Bressoud