By: Ellen Hampton
By the 1830s, Americans were spending months or years at a time in Paris, as artists, writers, bankers and businessmen made the City of Light their home. But Protestant worship in English was hard to find. Episcopal ministers came for a year or so, holding services in borrowed chapels, including today’s Hôtel Matignon, at the time the private residence of an American colonel.
The Rev. William O. Lamson of New York was dispatched to Paris in 1857 to establish an Episcopal foothold. He began holding services in chapels around the city, attended regularly by about 40 people and sometimes as many as 100, according to an 1859 newspaper article. Then the American Colony, as the expatriate community was known, joined to build an American Chapel on the rue de Berri. Morning and evening services alternated in style between the liturgy of Episcopalians and the brotherhood of Congregationalists, until disagreements arose and compromise flew out of reach.
In April 1859, a group of Americans founded the first Episcopal Church outside the United States in a rented room at 14, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The organizing committee, which included New York Senator Hamilton Fish, George Frederick Jones (father of novelist Edith Wharton), dentist Theodore Evans, banker Seymour Lansing and other notables named it the American Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity. The Episcopal General Convention gave its official blessing. But the room was soon too small for the growing congregation, and an attempted return to the American Chapel blew up in a Christmas Day service that archival traces indicate was indeed explosive.
The Episcopalians then began a fundraising drive to build their own church, backed by the diocese of New York. During the Civil War years, southerners decamped to the British church while northerners remained in Rev. Lamson’s congregation. By 1863, the Episcopalians had bought a lot on rue Bayard, and Rev. Lamson went on a fundraising tour of the United States. That year, a retiring pastor of the American Chapel lamented the birth of the new Episcopal church: “There is no more need of a second American Church here than of a separate ‘confederacy’ on American soil. I trust that neither enterprise will succeed.”
Lamson did not have great success raising money in the States, but key founders with deep pockets (Benjamin Winthrop, J.P. Morgan, Hamilton Fish) helped pay for the construction of a modest church, consecrated on September 12, 1864. Holy Trinity’s next crisis came in the Franco-Prussian War and sieges that followed, in 1870-71. American minister Elihu Washburne noted in his journal at the time that Episcopal services continued, though few Americans remained in the city to attend them.
By 1875, the church was deemed too small for the growing congregation, and a new site was found on the avenue de l’Alma, today’s avenue George V. The church on rue Bayard was sold to the Scots Kirk, which still occupies it today, although the original building was torn down in the 1950s. Building committee members asked George Edmund Street, one of the best-known Gothic architects in England, to design the new church. His work included the churches of St. James the Less in London, St. Peter in Bournemouth and All Saints at Clifton. Most importantly, Street had designed St. Paul’s-within-the-Walls, the American Episcopal church in Rome, in 1872. He agreed, and standing in the street with the Rev. John B. Morgan, sketched a plan that changed only slightly in its construction. However, Street died suddenly in 1881 and his son Arthur Edmond Street brought the project to completion. The cornerstone was laid in March 1882 and the first service was held on September 12, 1886.
Holy Trinity became The American Cathedral in 1923, when it was named the seat of the Rt. Rev. G. Mott Williams, Bishop-in-charge of the American churches in Europe. The building was listed as a Monument Historique in 1997.
Through the 20th century, Holy Trinity was a keystone of the American community in Paris. Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein were buried from there; Vanderbilts and Morgans were married there; James Gordon Bennett was baptized as an adult and Anna Gould was confirmed there. The list of American women who married into noble French families at the church is too long to recount, as is the list of French women who married American GIs at the church in the wake of WWII.
Community support through various church-sponsored organizations have been central to the Holy Trinity congregation. Its Junior Guild worked hand-in-hand with the French government social services to care for refugees in years past, and continues to support refugee programs today. While the pandemic has shifted church services and activities to a virtual footing on many levels, it continues to play its primary role at the heart of the American community of Paris.
Ellen Hampton is a Paris-based historian and author. She is a longtime member of The American Cathedral and serves on its Archives Committee.