Holy Trinity Churchyard
Established in 1789 to serve the German Catholic community, Holy Trinity Church was the first American parish created to serve a specific national or linguistic group. Stephen Girard was buried in the churchyard in 1831, before being reinterred in Girard College in 1851. The churchyard is also referenced in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem "Evangeline". In addition to the churchyard, Holy Trinity also acquired a strip of the St. Mary’s graveyard between 5th and 6th street. Holy Trinity parish merged with St. Mary’s in 2009 and the church was closed in 2019.
Backstory and Context
Established in 1789 to serve the German Catholic community, Holy Trinity Church was the first American parish created to serve a specific national or linguistic group. Stephen Girard was buried in the churchyard in 1831, before being reinterred in Girard College in 1851. The churchyard is also referenced in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem "Evangeline". In addition to the churchyard, Holy Trinity also acquired a strip of the St Mary’s graveyard between 5th and 6th street. Holy Trinity merged with St. Mary’s in 2009 and the church was closed in 2019.
Mariner, merchant, banker, and philanthropist Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was one of America’s first millionaires and left approximately 80% of his estate to create Girard College, a boarding school for financially-disadvantaged students which still exists today. He had no children and his wife (buried at Pennsylvania Hospital) predeceased him, but he had indicated to his nieces that he wished to be buried at Holy Trinity. Born in Bordeaux France, Girard had been baptized Catholic and while largely non-practicing (and married in the Episcopal church), he never formally renounced his faith and so Bishop Francis Kenrick permitted the burial. Stephen Girard was interred on the north side of the yard, next to General Henri Lallemand, the first husband of his niece Henriette Girard.
Girard was buried on December 30, 1831. Three thousand people marched in his funeral procession and twenty-thousand lined the streets. Flags were flown at half-mast. Girard’s body was brought into the church, but because of the presence of Girard’s Masonic brothers, who entered the church wearing Masonic jewels and insignia, Bishop Kenrick wrote that he “refused to go on with the [burial] rite of the Church and the body was buried without the presence of a priest.” Once Girard College was constructed, in 1851 Stephen Girard’s body was removed from Holy Trinity and reinterred in a marble sarcophagus in the main building.
Holy Trinity churchyard is also associated with Longfellow’s poem "Evangeline", published in 1847, which tells the story of an Acadian expelled form Nova Scotia, who spends her life searching for her lost love. She finally moved to Philadelphia and works among the poor, finally finding her dying beloved as she cares for the sick in an epidemic and being buried with him. Longfellow had visited Philadelphia in 1824 and Holy Trinity is considered the best match for the “little Catholic churchyard” mentioned in his poem:
Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping.
Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard,
In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed.
Daily the tides of life go ebbing and flowing beside them,
"Historic Resting Place for Famous and Faithful," Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Accessed April 24th 2020. https://chrc-phila.org/historic-resting-place-for-famous-and-faithful/.
"Holy Trinity Church Cemetery - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," Local Cemeteries. Accessed April 24th 2020. https://www.localcemeteries.net/philadelphia/2018/8/8/holy-trinity-church-cemetery-philadelphia.
"Where are Evangeline and Gabriel Buried?" The American Catholic Historical Researches, New Series, 1, no. 2 (1905): 140-43. Accessed April 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44374511.
Wilson, George. Stephen Girard: The Life and Times of America's First Tycoon. Conshohockon, PA. Combined Books, 1996.
Wood, Sam. " 3 Roman Catholic churches to close in Society Hill, West Philly, Northeast." Philadelphia Inquirer July 28th 2019. .