Trinity Church, Nevada City, circa 1873

On April 21, 1854, The Right Reverend William Kip, Bishop of California, held in Nevada City the first Episcopal Church service in our county’s history. Despite a driving rainstorm, over fifty people participated, much to the Bishop’s surprise. A group of Episcopalians decided to form a congregation and a year and a day later, the Parish of the Holy Trinity was formally organized and incorporated.

Several men had come to the gold fields of Nevada City during the Gold Rush from the village of Rensselaerville, New York, including the Niles and Searles families who figure prominently in the subsequent history of Nevada City and County. The Episcopal parish in their home town being called Holy Trinity, it seemed only natural that they should propose the same name for the church in what was then a newly settled part of America.

Bishop Kip Founds an Episcopal Church in Grass Valley

A short time after the Holy Trinity Parish was founded, Bishop Kip founded an Episcopal Church in nearby Grass Valley as well, which became today’s Emmanuel Church. During the early period of Holy Trinity Parish’s history, the two parishes shared a Rector in common. The early days of Nevada County’s history were difficult, not the least due to the high proportion of footloose gold seekers. One Rector of Holy Trinity Parish, The Reverend Henry Smeatham, was massacred at the aptly named Surprise Valley, Nevada, by Indians. His last words were reported to be, “Boys, be as cool as if you were walking into Church.” Henry Smeatham was reported not to be on good terms with his bishop at the time, having ventured into Indian country against his superior’s advice.

Nevada City at the time was a wide-open gold mining town trying to gain respectability. Disastrous fires emanating from the saloon district periodically swept the town. The first Trinity Church, having been constructed at the vast expense of $4000, was dedicated in March 1863, at the corner of Main and Church Streets. It featured a stained glass window which had been brought around the southern tip of South America from England, and a bell which had been salvaged from a ship abandoned in San Francisco harbor in the early days of the Gold Rush. November 1863 saw yet another conflagration spread out from the saloons and boarding houses that crowded central Nevada City. The newly finished Trinity Church caught fire. The stained glass window and bell were miraculously spared. The congregation decided that their church’s location, though centrally located in town, must be moved to avoid any more fires.

Aristocracy Hill

Nevada City, it is said with a certain irony, is built on seven hills like Rome, San Francisco, and Constantinople. Only a few hundred yards to the south of their previous location and across a small valley, Aristocracy Hill was never affected by Nevada City’s fires. So, in 1869 Trinity Parish’s congregation bought the site of the present church from the local school district. It had been Washington School, the first school in Nevada City, but the growing number of children, indicative of the town’s transformation into a real community as distinct from a mining camp, made a new school necessary. The site was sold to the Church, and new property was bought by the School Board across town.

Trinity Church
Painting by Paula DeGiorgis

Holy Trinity Church’s new location at the corner of Nevada and High Streets, before it was a school, was the first spot built on in Nevada City, Caldwell’s Upper Store. Mr. Caldwell’s store was erected there to serve the needs of the gold miners working in Deer Creek, less than a couple of hundred yards away. Nevada City literally grew up around the site of Trinity Church, though in its earliest days the town was called “Caldwell’s Upper Store” after its main commercial enterprise.

Holy Trinity Church Dedicated on November 4, 1873

The new New England style Holy Trinity Church was dedicated on November 4, 1873, having cost $5000 to build. The stained glass window rescued from the earlier, destroyed edifice was triumphantly installed above the altar, and the bell was hung in the tower. Holy Trinity Church is today arguably the most beautiful and certainly the best-preserved church edifice in the county. The building is said to have been modeled on St. James’s Episcopal Church in Sonora, California, except that the tower is on the opposite side of the front.

The church’s handmade pews are original to the building, and the carpenter’s plane marks are still visible. The altar, altar rail, pulpit, and prayer desks were made in Nevada City by George M. Huges in 1872. Their faux finishing is remarkably fine, as is that on the front of the choir balcony. For the congregation’s first ninety years or so, they made do with a wooden processional cross. However, in the 1940s a brass processional cross was made, as a copy of the wooden one, at a small foundry at the foot of Nevada Street. The old cross was somewhat roughly sawed off its pole and installed on the front of the pulpit. Alas, to accomplish this, one of its carved panels was removed, and the pulpit was painted a plain, and tedious, brown. The pulpit was finally restored properly in 1997. In 1894 Holy Trinity Church’s interior was lit by newly-installed gaslights. Only a few years later the church was electrified and the gaslighting was removed. The two remaining gas lights, now electrified, may be seen in the choir balcony with their original engraved glass shades.

Time passed, and Holy Trinity Parish, like Nevada City, slumbered in obscurity in California’s Gold Country. In 1942 a small fire broke out in the chancel of the church between the early and late services, but was quickly extinguished. The post at the farthest left-hand end of the altar rail is still blackened from that fire. The next year a far more serious fire damaged the church, partially burning the floor joists and roof. Miraculously, the interior of the building itself was undamaged. The Reverend Cedric Porter, the Rector, and his congregation did not know how they were going to raise the $11,000 needed to repair the fire damage, since the church’s insurance had not been updated for many years, and would only pay $4000. World War II was raging, and though the mines were still open, the parishioners were hard-pressed for cash.

Miss Kitty Taylor

One day Miss Kitty Taylor came to visit the Rector. She was the proprietress of one of the establishments on South Spring Street where Nevada City’s “ladies of the evening” worked. A strong supporter of civic causes, Miss Taylor gave $5000 to the church’s rebuilding fund and literally saved the congregation from financial collapse. The church’s floor was repaired, the roof replaced, and a new, red carpet was installed.

Ongoing History

In the early 1960s, a very fine pipe organ was bought for the church. During the incumbency of the Reverend J. Barrett Miller from 1983-84, a WWII period Quonset hut and a long narrow parish hall were removed and the new parish annex consisting of classrooms, restrooms and offices was built. Between the years 1995 and 1997, the entire church was restored, inside and out, and new heating and air conditioning was installed, as well as an excellent sound system. The church’s worship space is now probably the most intact and best-preserved Victorian interior in the county.