Cathedrals of California, A Virtual Pilgrimage

Trinity Cathedral, San José I: History

Yesterday Francesco and I were in San José to witness the seating of Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves as the third bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real. The seating of a bishop in the cathedra is a rite that goes back to ancient Christianity and is the official beginning of a bishop’s ministry in a diocese. Watch for Francesco to post some images soon.

Of course, the unusual aspect of this rite was that a woman was seated in the diocesan cathedra. Bishop Gray-Reeves was ordained on November 10, 2007 after she was elected the first woman to head a California Episcopal diocese. This historic event took place in a historic place, the venerable Trinity Cathedral in downtown San José. Trinity Cathedral is the oldest Episcopal cathedral church in California, the oldest Episcopal church in San José and the oldest church building in continuous use in that city. It proudly bears the designation of San José Historic City Landmark number 6.

The election, ordination and seating of Bishop Gray-Reeves is only the latest in a long history of pioneering initiatives by the Episcopal community of San José, which has always adopted innovative approaches to its growth.

In 1854, shortly after his ordination in New York to head the new missionary Diocese of California, California’s first Episcopal bishop William Ingraham Kip arrived at his diocesan seat of San Francisco. One of his first acts was to visit San José, where he conducted the first Episcopal service for a group at the Independent Presbyterian Church (later renamed First Presbyterian Church) on Second Street between St. John and Santa Clara streets. That church would become Trinity’s neighbor until it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake.

First Presbyterian Church of San Jose, 1906

First Presbyterian Church in ruins after the 1906 earthquake

Bishop Kip continued to make the arduous journey from San Francisco to serve the small Episcopal congregation of nine people in San José from time to time, until their first rector, Sylvester S. Etheridge, arrived to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent in 1860. The congregation organized as Trinity Church in 1861, holding services first in the firehouse on North Market Street and then in the City Hall.

Trinity was organized as a “free church,” meaning that all were welcome to attend without having to rent a seat as was the custom of the time. Soon the congregation began pioneering work among the African-American community of San José. An African-American member of Trinity Church who was among the first ordained from Trinity, Rev. Peter Cassey, established St. Philip’s Mission and Trinity members organized a Sunday school there for the children, with Bishop Kip going there for confirmations through 1871.

Among the first members of Trinity’s vestry was James W. Hammond, a retired sea captain skilled in the art of shipbuilding. He was to be a prominent lay leader and served as senior warden for 12 years. To him fell the responsibility of constructing a church building facing St. John Street at Second Street. Accordingly, the new Carpenter Gothic church was constructed by the shipbuilder’s art, and the first service was conducted there on the First Sunday of Advent, 1863. The church was consecrated by Bishop Kip in 1867.

Trinity Church, circa 1865

Trinity Church, circa 1865

In 1871, church growth once again cast upon Captain Hammond construction responsibilities. His innovative solution was to cut the church in half, drag one half by horses ninety degrees to face Second Street and add a third arm. This radical architectural surgery resulted in the present church, ready for services by 1876. The church tower was completed in 1887 and a renovation undertaken in 1958.

Trinity Church, circa 1880

Trinity Church, circa 1880

Trinity Church, circa 1887

Trinity Church, circa 1887

Interior of Trinity Church, 1936

Interior of Trinity Church, 1936

The pioneering spirit has prevailed at Trinity throughout its history, resulting in 10 area Episcopal congregations being formed from Trinity. In 1980, the Diocese of El Camino Real was carved out of the Diocese of California in 1980 to serve the counties of San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey — areas once connected by the historic El Camino Real, the “Royal Road” linking the missions of California. Trinity Church became the diocesan cathedral.

Small by the standards of other cathedrals, Trinity looms large in the heritage of the Episcopal Church in California.

A big tip of the biretta to Trinity’s enthusiastic dean, Very Rev. David Bird, to the cathedral clergy and staff for their unending hospitality, and to Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves for her participation and interest in our project.

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