Object Permanence

O rganized by Puritan settlers in 1639, Center Church on the Green is New Haven’s founding congregation. It served as the city’s established, tax-funded church until disestablishment came to Connecticut in 1818—not long after its current building, designed after St Martin-in-the-Fields by celebrated local architect Ithiel Town, was completed in 1814.

Also known as the First Church of Christ in New Haven, Center Church is most famous for its crypt, where, just beneath the floorboards of the nave, 137 stones still mark the graves of some of New Haven’s earliest colonial residents. But the church also houses other objects that tell the story of the congregation and its city.

Here are five of them:

1. The Davenport Window

Mounted above the pulpit, the Trowbridge Memorial Window, colloquially known as the Davenport Window, portrays the church’s founding minister, Reverend John Davenport, on Sunday, April 25, 1638, preaching his first sermon in the land that would become New Haven. A gift of E. Hayes Trowbridge in memory of his father, Ezekiel H. Trowbridge, this stained glass window was designed by Joseph Lauber of Tiffany Studios in New York and installed in 1894.

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In the years that followed, members of the church donated and installed nine other Tiffany windows depicting Biblical figures, angels, landscapes and even the Hector, the ship on which New Haven’s Puritan settlers arrived. But in a 1960 renovation of the building, the congregation decided to remove and donate these windows because, as a church pamphlet published at the time indicates, many parishioners felt the ornate images “were not in harmony… with the simplicity of a Puritan meetinghouse.” Three of these windows can now be found in the Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University.

2. Davenport’s Cup?

Reverend Davenport’s daughter-in-law Abigail Davenport bequeathed this magnificent silver caudle cup to the church upon her death in 1717. Although it is commonly believed that Reverend Davenport carried it here on the Hector, the cup is more likely the work of Boston silversmith John Dixwell, son of the regicide judge of the same name who famously hid from the crown’s wrath right here in New Haven.

Generations after its donation, when the British invaded New Haven in 1779, the cup, along with the rest of the church’s communion service (the silverware used by congregants during communion), was in the care of Deacon Stephen Bell. Fearing that the silver would be looted by British soldiers, Bell hid it by lifting his young daughter Mary up into their extinguished chimney, where she placed it on the smoke shelf. When the soldiers ransacked the home, they failed to discover the communion service hidden in the chimney, and it is still used by Center Church to this day.

3. A Controversial Cross

This bronze cross once threatened to sink a church merger. In 1969, Edgewood Congregational Church voted to merge with Center Church, with the Edgewood congregants set to begin attending services at Center. There was just one problem: They wanted to bring their altar cross with them, as a marker of their distinct identity and history as a congregation. Members of Center Church, being strict iconoclasts save for the Davenport Window, were staunchly opposed to introducing an altar cross into their worship space. Ultimately, the merging congregations compromised, and the Edgewood cross was placed at the foot of the pulpit, just above—but not on—the communion table.

4. The Fisk Organ

The church’s third organ, this particular instrument was built in 1971 by Charles Fisk of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and consists of 2,582 pipes. Some of these pipes are from Center Church’s second organ, an Austin donated by the Farnham Family in 1913.

The congregation’s first organ, a Hutchinson installed in 1855 over objections by those who considered it a “pagan instrument,” required a second person to pump it while it was being played. This was the organ that famed modernist composer Charles Ives used in his capacity as the church’s organist, a position he held at the turn of the century during his time as a student at Yale. Honoring Ives’s service to the church as well as its continuing commitment to the appreciation of organ music, Center Church annually awards the Charles Ives Organ Scholar Prize to an organ student at the Yale School of Music. The prize includes the opportunity to perform a public recital, typically held in the spring of each year, on the Fisk Organ.

5. Rented Pews

Visitors to Center Church are welcome to sit in any open seat, but this was not always the case. Traditionally, Congregational churches supported themselves by renting pews to their members. The location of a pew determined its price, with pews in the back costing, say, a fifth as much as pews near the front. In the 19th century, a congregation the size of Center Church could generate well over a million in today’s dollars through pew rentals alone.

Artifacts of the practice, which was dropped in the early 20th century, can still be found among Center Church’s white box pews. A nameplate found on the door of pew #63 indicates that it belonged to the family of Eli Whitney, while the door of another bears a plate that forever reads, “Rented.” Today, those who find themselves mulling over pews before the church’s Sunday service can think of the plate as an invitation, not a proscription—as being rented not to any one person or family but to the entire city.

Center Church on the Green
250 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Services: Sun 10am
(203) 787-0121

Written by Nicholas Mignanelli, a Center Church parishioner. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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