“It is the nature of any enterprise that if it has value, it continues to live and flourish while the people who supply its hands and feet come and go.” – Lou Hale Smitheram, The History of Trinity Church

The story of Trinity is the story of its congregation, acting within and without the walls of our church, to create a vibrant community of worship here in Santa Barbara. On more than one occasion, we have turned boldly to face changing times, discovering within ourselves the deep reserves of passion, skill, and prayer that have sustained our congregation for nearly one hundred fifty years.

Early buildings.

history-med_res2We might start with the buildings. Trinity Episcopal Church has been built many times. A small group of Episcopalians founded Trinity on March 26, 1867 in the home of a Mr. Sprague. After that, services were held at the Courthouse, and then for a while at an old brick schoolhouse.

In 1868 the Parish held a fair to raise money to build a church on East Gutierrez Street. The fair is still remembered in this town as the first time that Santa Barbara tasted ice cream. But for our history of Trinity, the important note is that the funds were raised, and a new church was built to house the congregation. Santa Barbara grew with Trinity. In 1887, a railway to Los Angeles was completed and Santa Barbara became an easy half-day trip from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the tracks ran right alongside Trinity, and the incessant sound of the railways pushed the congregation to move uptown.

In 1888, a beautiful wooden church was raised at Anacapa and Anapamu streets; it was known as the “Redwood Church” for its fine redwood steeple, which held a large bell. The church also contained Trinity’s first pipe organ, the beautiful music of which would come in later years to be a hallmark of Trinity services. Parish activities grew in the new space as the 1890s saw the emergence of a thriving Sunday school and the publication of the first Trinity Quarterly newsletter.

To the regret of all, the Redwood Church burned down on December 20, 1903. The following years marked a decade of displacement for the Trinity parish, as the congregation engaged in a practice of peripatetic worship in spaces borrowed from local organizations. In an act of hospitality and generosity not soon to be forgotten, the Presbyterian congregation offered Trinity the use of their State Street church for services on that first Christmas Day after the fire.

Micheltorena and State Streets.

And so, it was not until 1912 that we arrive at our current location on Micheltorena and State streets, certainly chosen for the excellence of the land itself, but also (anecdotally) for its comfortable distance from the proposed route of the expanded streetcar network. (Having had to move once already for the train, the congregation did not relish the thought of having to do it again.) The new church was built in the English Perpendicular Gothic style by architects Philip Hubert Frohman and Harold Martin. Frohman would later become famous as the chief architect of the Washington National Cathedral. On February 25, 1919, Bishop Johnson, Bishop Nichols, and the Archbishop Germanos of the Greek Orthodox Church consecrated the church, and we have worshipped under its roof since.

Of course the story does not end here. Rather one gets the sense that it was just beginning. A large earthquake in 1925 damaged the building (as well as the rest of Santa Barbara) significantly. But it was soon rebuilt and reopened. By the 1950s, Trinity boasted over one thousand parishioners and a large Sunday school housed in its own building.

Trinity in the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1960s and 1970s were more difficult as Trinity and the Episcopal Church in general transitioned from an institution at the top of the American social hierarchy to one with a more debated role in the community. The parish, sometimes at odds with itself and sometimes at odds with its leadership, chose a path of social justice and inclusive worship.

The 1970s saw the expanded incorporation of male and female lay readers into Sunday services, the opening of the Trinity Clothes Closet (a precursor to today’s “Dress for Success” organizations, which provide business clothes to those in need so that they may appear at their best for job interviews), and the newly-established Outreach Committee’s purchase of a van to be used to transport stroke patients to and from rehabilitation appointments, deliver Meals-on-Wheels, and in general serve the transport needs of the less mobile members of our Trinity and civic community.

The church buildings were opened up to the community as well, and during this time the walls of Trinity echoed with the sounds of Montessori school children, the volunteers of Los Niños (which provided food and assistance to orphanages in Tijuana), and the important work of the organization Recording for the Blind. In 1975, Trinity inaugurated the Maundy Thursday Seder meal during Holy Week as a way of celebrating and exploring the Jewish life of Christ. It remains today one of the most powerful and popular services of the liturgical year.

The 1980s and early 1990s.

Despite the impressive activism of its parishioners and leadership, the 1980s and early 1990s were again a difficult time for Trinity. The leasing out of the church school building to the Montessori school led to the departure of young children and families. The tension in the Episcopal community over the ordination of women, and Trinity’s failure to endorse this change, encouraged more progressive parishioners to seek worship elsewhere.

The arrival of The Rev. Mortimer Ward in 1986 reinvigorated many aspects of Trinity life. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the creation of the Parish Council structure, and the establishment of the Community Kitchen to feed the city’s homeless, which very quickly became a Santa Barbara institution. There was increasing activism of parishioners in the exploration of progressive theology and new forms of worship. Yet it is also fair to say that the congregation remained in prayerful search for its path forward in this time of social change.

1993 to today.

It was at this moment that we introduced a change that is both the most significant in Trinity’s recent history, and at the same time the seemingly inevitable response of a parish that was blessed with an active and inquisitive congregation in a time of uncertainty.

In 1993, faced with an increasingly dire financial situation, a mandate from the city to seismically retrofit the church buildings, and the resignation of Mortimer Ward, the congregation gathered itself once again to rebuild and reinvigorate our church. With the leadership of the vestry and The Rev. Mark E. Asman, our 17th rector, the congregation embarked on the “With Strength Renewed” capital campaign. Despite two previous studies that declared the raising of necessary funds to be impossible, the parish raised $1.55 million and completed the retrofit of our buildings.

The energy released by the efforts to save the church building extended into the theological life of the parish as well. A group exploring inclusive language in liturgy inaugurated a Thursday evening “experimental” Eucharist. A committee was formed to explore the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, while the rector and vestry explored the question of whether to “bless” or “marry” same-sex couples. In 1997, Mark Asman presided over the marriage of Dr. Charles R. Courtney and Philip Thompson in what was not only Trinity’s first same-sex marriage but also the first same-sex marriage in Santa Barbara County. And within our own congregation we embarked on the “Common Ground” exploration of our worship space, which led to the moving of the altar from the chancel down to the level of the congregation where it stands today.

In 1999, this “parish-up” activism was institutionalized as “Shared Ministry” and was organized into the Parish Council structure. We continue to marvel at how the Holy Spirit works to bring us together in shared passions and shared endeavors, and how such work has brought Trinity alive again. The Parish Hall is lively all nights of the week with gatherings of seekers; our Sunday worship is a diverse mix of tradition and exploration. We have worked in recent years to build bridges to our brothers and sisters of different faith communities. We have, likewise sparked by the energies and questions of our own congregation, found new and exciting ways to make our worship practices inclusive. We have arrived – but not settled! – at the value that motivates our faith as a community of worship and brings us together as a community of individuals.

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