Trinity Church of Cornish, New Hampshire
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
The Trinity Church sits in a small clearing in the town of Cornish, New Hampshire, near the banks of the Connecticut River. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is significant for its architecture and association with the Chase family, the most prominent citizens of the local area.
In 1765, a man named Dudley Chase and two others paddled up the Connecticut River and settled the town of Cornish, New Hampshire. The town's land had been granted to a large group by King George III of England, but few of the grantees ever settled there. Instead, the Chase family took the initiative and braved the untamed wilderness to stake a claim.
Dudley and his wife Alice had fifteen children, fourteen of whom survived to adulthood. Five of the boys attended Dartmouth College, and their youngest two sons Dudley Jr. and Philander would go on to attain national attention.
Dudley Chase Jr. moved across the Connecticut River to Vermont, where he built an impressive political career. He served as Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and twice as a U.S. Senator from Vermont.
His brother Philander Chase had a similarly successful career in the religious world, one which began in Cornish itself. While a student at Dartmouth, he came across a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, the definitive ritual text of the Anglican Communion churches, which are organized and operated in a traditional, hierarchical manner with Bishops responsible for managing swaths of territory known as provinces.
Philander had been raised in the less formal Congregationalist tradition, in which his father was a Deacon. Congregationalism, in which individual community churches are largely autonomous and responsible for their own affairs, was common practice in New England at the time and was a preferred organizational style of the Puritan settlers, who had moved across the Atlantic to establish a society where they could follow their own religious practices.
Philander and his family were deeply religious, like many at the time. Upon reviewing the prayer book thoroughly, the young man came to feel that the worship practices it recommended would allow him to better live out his faith than the ones he had grown up with. Perhaps surprisingly, when he returned to Cornish and shared the Book with his family and friends, they became similarly inclined and all agreed to convert their practices along with him. This was a truly remarkable development coming as it did in 1795, so soon after the American Revolution and at a time when all things hierarchical and British, as the Episcopal Church was, were met with great distrust.
As Cornish became an Episcopal town, it needed an Episcopal house of worship. Thus in 1808, thanks to the movement initiated by young Philander, Trinity Church was completed, replacing the old town meeting house, and remains standing over 200 years later.
Philander Chase would go on to become a celebrated figure in the Episcopal Church. He served as Bishop of the Diocese of Ohio and founded Kenyon College in that state. He also spent time helping establish the Episcopal church in Illinois.
While serving as bishop of Ohio, Philander became the legal guardian of his nephew Salmon P. Chase, who had been born just down the road from Trinity. That Chase would continue the family legacy of fame and service by earning a position as Abraham Lincoln's Treasury Secretary and later becoming Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The town of Cornish would also come to make a good name for itself. In the late 1800s, Cornish became a popular summer retreat for writers and artists, most notably the prolific sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose estate is located close to Trinity and is maintained by the National Parks Service as a National Historic Site.
Due to these historic connections, Trinity Church stands today as a symbol of the history of Cornish and the outsized role the tiny town played in national affairs by producing some exceptionally prominent figures of the early Republic.
Trinity Church is an exceptionally simple, yet very elegant example of a New England village church. Its location at the back of a wide clearing, surrounded by tall pine trees, gives it a sense of place and purpose.
Built from 1803-1808 and designed by the carpenter and builder Philip Tabor, the building is constructed of clapboard wood and fronted by a high belfry tower. The roof of the main area is a simple king post truss, reminiscent of the type found topping many of the famous covered bridges in New Hampshire and Vermont. The ceiling has been lowered from its original height.
In all, Trinity is a remarkable testament to the integrity and craftsmanship of its builders and a representative sample of the high quality of work produced by local builders all over New England in the early 19th century.
NRHP Listing and Today
The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. At the time, it was vacant according to the official nomination report. A few years later, Trinity was painstakingly restored by Peter Burling, who like the Chase family spent time in politics, representing Cornish in the New Hampshire State House of Representatives and Senate and also serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Under new ownership, the church opened again for Anglican religious services in 2004, but was secularized and donated to the town of Cornish in 2009. The building is today used for special events, most notably weddings.
For Further Information
Includes official nomination form, photos, and maps