The oldest church in Staunton may arguably be one of the most awe-inspiring in the city.
I’m talking about Trinity Episcopal Church, which sits gracefully on the edge of the downtown area offering a respite from the bustle (as if there were any) from the shops and restaurants anchoring my Virginia hometown.
I’d been meaning to tour the inner sanctum of the church for any months, mainly to see the famous Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows from the inside out. They serve as a perfect compliment to the Gothic Revival styled edifice that is chock full of town history and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visiting around service hours is tricky though – you have to stop by during a handful of afternoon hours during the week to find the chapel open. On the day we stopped, the discreet sign outside the door directed us to check into the rectory to gain entrance if the doors were locked (which we did).
Once in the rectory, which to me had that smell peculiar only to churches – dusty hymnals – we were kindly greeted by the music director. Although busy prepping for the impending Christmas performances, she happily led us back to the chapel, chatting companionably about her work and the impending holiday concerts.
Once you enter the chapel you can’t help but be hushed by its beauty, which includes a gorgeous vaulted ceiling, wooden struts spanning their lofty curves towards the sky like the ribs of some sort of celestial whale. Gothic Revival architecture dates back to the 1700’s, made popular in England and carried over to the United States. It’s a fanciful, romantic architectural style that had lost its popularity as time went on.
The original church (there have been three on this West Beverly Street site) was built in 1746 and originally named Augusta Parish. The grounds also boast the city’s first cemetery. Eventually, they ran out of space and Thornrose Cemetery became the place to be (well, in the hereafter). According to the church website, there are at least 17 soldiers from the American Revolutionary War buried on the grounds.
In May 1781, the Virginia General Assembly fled Monticello ahead of advancing British troops, and landed in Staunton, where they set up the assembly in Augusta Parish Church, from June 7 to June 23 of that same year.
The Episcopal Church has always been the epicenter of the city. Local gentry went there to pray and it served as a community hub. During the Civil War, students and professors congregated at the current church (built in 1855) forming a school of sorts.
But back to those gorgeous windows. Of the 13 opalescent-style windows, 12 are Tiffany. Visitors will note the varying styles right away. Some have geometric shapes, some host depictions of saints and others bucolic, pastoral scenes (my personal favorite). Over the years, donor families have born the brunt of the cost for these exquisite pieces of art glass.
Having been raised Southern Baptist, I’ve always been impressed by religions which honor their beliefs with gorgeous, earthly houses of worship. That was never the way of my youth. Services I attended in the 1960’s and ’70’s were held in austere, functional buildings. The fire and brimstone that rained upon my young soul from the pulpit always left me feeling unworthy and not quite knowing why.
As a non-religious but spiritual adult, perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to unnatural wonders such as Trinity Episcopal Church. I can admire its obvious beauty and historical importance without any religious strictures or emotional baggage attached. It can just be.