History

Early History

In Colonial New England Puritan tradition and the Congregational Church were dominant. In Litchfield at the time of the American Revolution there were only 13 families in a population of about 2000 who belonged to the Church of England. A few of them lived in what was called the Northwest Section. They drove into town to attend the first St. Michael’s Church, built in 1749 near the south end of Baldwin Hill Road. They were all branded as Tories, and when war was declared the rector fled with other loyalists. An elderly lay reader, Captain David Landon, pulled them through the eight years of war. St. Michael’s then voted, in December, 1791, to send its fourth rector, Ashbel Baldwin, to hold services in Blue Swamp, as Milton was then known, five Sundays a year in 1792. Milton is a contraction of Milltown, because of the numerous water-powered mills in the village.

Baldwin left Litchfield the following year, and later became a prominent figure in the Church. In 1795, newly ordained Truman Marsh, then at New Milford in his parish, took over the five visits a year to Milton. The congregation was then meeting in private homes, including that of the well-known builder William Sprats on Saw Mill Road.

In 1798, Episcopalians living there applied to the First Episcopal Society for permission to build a chapel in the Village of Milton. It was approved and Trinity Parish was born. On September 4, 1799, the Episcopal Society appointed The Reverend Mr. Marsh as Rector. Two-fifths of his services were to be devoted to Litchfield, two-fifths to the West (Bantam) Church, and one-fifth to the church in Milton. This gifted preacher thus became Trinity’s first rector.

As a boy, Truman had attended Captain Landon’s wartime services. Even though he was the grandson of John Marsh, Litchfield’s original settler, it is told that he was abused by young and old as he was sickly and lame. He persevered in his studies, and graduated from Yale in 1782. Bishop Samuel Seabury ordained him at a Diocesan convention held in Litchfield in 1790. He married the daughter of Judge John Welch of Milton, another Yale graduate who lived in the large house next to the present church. The Welches gave a corner of their land at the head of The Green as a site for the building, and contributed generously to its construction. An area in the rear and to the west of the site was leased to the church for ninety-nine years to be used as horse sheds for the convenience of the parishioners.

Meanwhile the congregation had met for about eleven years in private homes, finally beginning the present church edifice on June 25, 1802, thus making it one of the nine oldest churches in the Diocese. It was fitted for use with the addition of a roof, and finished with benches. The builder, Oliver Dickinson, had been a British prisoner in the original Trinity Church, at the top of Wall Street in New York City, before the British burned it down, with the rest of lower Manhattan in 1776. His son Anson (1779-1832) became a celebrated painter of miniatures in New York City.

Dickinson modeled the Milton church after the second Trinity Church, Wall Street, simplifying the design for the smaller structure. At first there was no chancel. The original balconies remain. The overall design is an unusually successful combination of classical and gothic features, such as the gracefully pointed windows and muntins.

Dickinson note

This note was found in the door jam when the doors were replaced in 1998. It reads “This building erected in 1802 for the use of the Episcopal Society in this part of Litchfield. The Reverend Truman Marsh Rector – Oliver Dickinson Architect.” The church was not completed until 1826, and Bishop Thomas C. Brownell of Connecticut did not consecrate it until 1837. In those days, Yankee churches could not be consecrated until they were out of debt, and apparently money had been slow coming in.

After serving as rector of St. Michael’s from 1799 to 1810, Truman Marsh asked to be relieved of his duties due to poor health. However, he had been so successful and popular that he was kept on for another twenty years with the understanding that he could have an assistant and perform only such duties as he chose. Marsh has been called “different, because he was so close to God.” The Reverend Isaac Jones, an “intelligent, scholarly man,” was appointed his assistant, as well as to take over as rector at Trinity, Milton, and Saint Paul’s, Bantam. For the next 163 years, those churches would share a single minister.

When the second St. Michael’s was built in 1812, the members voted to give Milton the pews, tulip pulpit, reading desk, and railings from the old church. The pulpit had to be cut down as it was far too high. It had been a gift from the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) which had supported missionary work in the American colonies until the Revolution. In 1843 Garret P. Welch and his brother Hugh gave the church an exceptionally resonant 30 inch bell, cast by O. Hanks, in Troy, N.Y. Around 1851 when the third St. Michael’s was built, the stained glass altar window was given to Trinity. Within a year of two the chancel was constructed to house it. Parish records commenced in 1832 but were imperfectly kept until 1866. Since that time they have been faithfully kept in the register. It is enlightening to see the struggles and successes of those who worshipped within these walls.

Below is the consecration letter signed by Thomas Church Brownell, Bishop of Connecticut, signed September 18, 1837.
Bishop Brownell consecration

After 1850

Milton had become a prosperous manufacturing center with 26 water-powered mills along the Marshepaug River. At one time it had a larger population than Litchfield center and its own post office. After the Civil War the number of inhabitants dropped as farmers went to better land in the West. Steam replaced waterpower in manufacturing. Finally, the railroad by passed Milton in favor of Bantam. The community went into decline.

In 1863, the Honorable Seth P. Beers left the income from the grand sum of $1,000, “to be paid equally” to each of the three Litchfield parishes. Today that income is about $5,400 annually. He had attended the Tapping Reeve Law School in Litchfield, and became a state official. He served for over twenty years on the Saint Michael’s vestry.

Prior to the arrival of the organ (described elsewhere under Tour) in 1866, all singing had been done “a capella.”

Meanwhile the congregation had become a little ashamed of its old fashioned church, and tried to modernize it to look more gothic. The gothic revival was sweeping the country as the latest in church design. The original steeple was removed from the belfry and replaced by a balcony with four square-cornered turrets.

On a Friday afternoon in July 1897, a violent thunderstorm broke out. Lightening struck the turrets and belfry, and set the church on fire. Torrential rain put out the fire, but the belfry had to be rebuilt. This time it was somewhat lower than before.

In 1902, when centennial services were held, the well-beloved long-time rector Hiram Stone (1873-1903) took a pessimistic view of the future of Trinity Church. In 1909 and 1910, Rector Clarence C. Beers thought that modernization might improve attendance. For the original clear glass in the nave, he substituted mass-produced Victorian stained glass memorial windows. The mid-century kerosene chandelier and sconces were eliminated. However, the decline continued. The horse sheds rotted and were torn down and the building itself deteriorated. The congregation fell to a handful of members. By the time of the Great Depression, the parish survived only with the income from the Beers endowment.

In 1938 Senior Warden Edward H. Raymond, jr. and two members of the vestry, Ernest Axford and G. Herbert Griffin, met with Bishop Walter Gray to discuss the future of the parish. The Bishop believed that Milton would grow and that it would be more economical to repair the current church than build anew. The most necessary repairs were then made. Mr. Richards, whose wife was a member, installed the new electric wiring. His fee was simple. His two grandchildren would be permitted to turn on the lights for the first time.

While this work was being done, three pinnacles with crosses were found in the belfry. Evidently they and a fourth pinnacle had stood at the base of the original steeple. It was therefore possible to determine accurately the proportions of the former steeple and restore the church to its previous striking appearance. This was accomplished through a gift of $900 from St. Michael’s Church in memory of two of their rectors who had also served at Trinity: Truman Marsh and Isaac Jones.

Post-World War II

In June, 1949, the daughter of long-time senior warden G. Herbert Griffin was married in the church. The weight of 125 people in the nave, and particularly in the balcony, made it creak and sway in an alarming manner. The minister insisted on completing the ceremony. As the members of the congregation departed in haste, they had to step over a gap between the floor and the front door sill. Both the floors and the sill were found to be rotten. Dr. Raymond contributed to a concrete slab under the nave, and the joists and roof were replaced.

In the mid 1960s Herb Griffin single handedly painted the entire exterior of the church as well as the interior woodwork.

The evergreen planting in front of the church, and the floodlights to illuminate its lovely spire at night, were the gift in 1964 of Senior Warden and Mrs. Louis Ripley in honor of their deceased son, Louis Dillon Ripley. A spruce tree on the west lawn was given by La Gardo Tackett to serve as a Christmas tree in memory of his wife Virginia. It is used for a community Christmas celebration to this day.

In 1972 the interior was carpeted, and later cushions put in the pews through the efforts of Senior Warden Glenna McGinnis. In 1977, in order to make the chancel door a fire exit, electric heat was substituted for old heat, through the efforts of Senior Warden Alexander Leslie. A bequest for long time communicant Walter Finch funded this project. The new unit replaced an oil furnace installed in 1952, which has supplanted two wood-burning stoves. One of these had been vented through a brick chimney on the east side of the building. Plexiglas covers were installed over the windows to both protect them and conserve heat, through the generosity of Victoria Read and Estey Foster.

An extensive renovation of the church was undertaken in 1989, during the tenure of The Reverend Duggins and with leadership from William Donaldson, Senior Warden. Despite the expense of remodeling the main structure, the vestry decided to go further and construct an all-new parish house to the north and west. Trinity Milton was the last of the 185 parishes in the diocese to get running water and toilets! For most of its existence it had used the large David Welch house next door as its parish house. Now the former vesting room beside the chancel provides a passageway and coat room leading to an ample parish room, with serving pantry and lavatories. An entrance ramp for handicapped access and low stairs lead to the parking lot and provide a long-needed second fire exit from the church.

During this construction it was found that the previous concrete floor had been poured using the original sills as a form. Those had rotted to the point that the interior columns supporting the balcony were holding up the entire building. The Vicar’s Fund drive in 1990 underwrote badly needed renovation. The old concrete floor was removed. New concrete footings were poured for the interior columns. The entire building was jacked up and new sills installed. The rear wall of the nave which had formed a vestibule was removed, and a new white oak floor was installed.

Change often brings controversy. In an effort to replicate the colors of Manhattan’s first Trinity, the entire interior was repainted. Over some objections, the Victorian artifacts, such as the center chandelier and the side sconces were removed. The stained glass memorial windows were retained. At one point a vestry deadlocked over the seating arrangements. Chairs were then substituted for pews. This arrangement provides an increased openness and greater flexibility than is possible with fixed pews. New and efficient lighting and heating were also installed.

The Raymonds graciously provided a plot of land to the northwest of the church which has become the William and Helen Donaldson Memorial Garden. Here ashes may be interred.

A new and beautiful altar was given by Alice Gray and Lois White. This allows the celebrant to face the congregation during the communion service.

Today

Trinity Church in the Milton Historic District of Litchfield continues to this day to the praise and glory of Almighty God. It is also testimony to those who have come before, the men and women whose faith and devotion have brought this small corner of God’s kingdom into the 21st Century. This Church has witnessed both good and hard times, but it has been sustained by the generosity and vision of the people of this parish. Pray God we may be their worthy successors and stewards of this place.