Center Church on the Green

In Spires

This Saturday on New Haven Green, you’re likely to run into someone who will offer you a cookie.

Go ahead, take it. It’s a peace offering. It’s a neighborly gesture. It’s a reflection on the history of New Haven. Plus, it’s a cookie.

The three churches on New Haven Green are celebrating an anniversary. Give or take a year or two, it’s been two centuries since the “meeting houses” where these churches hold their services were built. The folks who visit these buildings regularly every Sunday have decided to step out on Saturday (June 15) and include the thousands of people who’ll be milling around the Green in their celebration. Saturday, see, is the kick-off of the 18th annual International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

New Haven Green had a number of buildings and other structures on it in the first 250 years of its existence: A guard house. A jail. A courthouse. A grammar school. Stone walls. Fences. A well dug at each corner. Gravestones. For its 2013 festival, Arts & Ideas is erecting a bandstand, several smaller stages, an information booth and a circus tent.

sponsored by

Windows into Heaven at Knights of Columbus Museum

For the last century or so, however, it’s pretty much been all about the churches—three of them. They were all built between 1812 and 1815 and all reflected religious communities which could trace their roots in New Haven to the 17th, early 18th and mid-18th centuries.

These three churches are as iconic of New Haven as the trees which gave the city its Elm City nickname. They are better known than most Yale buildings, and their images decorate souvenir items from postcards to blankets to snowglobes.

The oldest of New Haven’s churches (by at least six decades) and the oldest of the current churches on the Green (by a couple of years) is the one in the middle. Center Church (pictured above), officially named the First Church of Christ in New Haven, was created in August 1639, less than a year and a half after New Haven was founded. It went through three church buildings before landing its current longstanding meeting house in 1812. Center Church is the church with a crypt for a basement. In the 1820s, it became the first building in the city with a large public clock.

United Church on the Green, at the corner of Elm and Temple streets, grew from a rift in the congregation at Center Church during the mid-1700s. Its meeting house on the Green is slightly shy of its bicentennial, having been built in 1814. It was called North Church until 1884, when it united with Third Church and changed its name. United Church on the Green’s Federalist architectural style makes it the ideal venue for Orchestra New England’s annual wintertime “Colonial Concerts,” where the orchestra dresses in Colonial costumes, plays 19th-century music, and welcomes special 18th-century celebrity guests such as George Washington and Roger Sherman. United is the church which, in 1839, cared for and helped raise money for the legal defense of the African natives from the Amistad slave ship. One of its longstanding modern ministries is United Community Nursery School, a non-denominational pre-school program it has run for 50 years.

Both Center and United were built as, and still are, Congregationalist churches. They are connected through membership in the United Church of Christ, a Protestant Christian denomination formed in 1957 through the union of two previously existing denominations, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. United Church of Christ has over 5,000 member churches, and two of them are side by side on New Haven Green.

Not only are Center and United’s meeting houses adjacent, but their parish houses—separate buildings which house the churches’ offices, meeting halls and other resources—are next to each other on Temple Street between Elm and Wall.

The third church, Trinity Church on the Green, once had its parish house in the same vicinity, at the corner of Wall Street and Whitney Avenue. Trinity sold the parish house to Yale in 1980; that building is now the Whitney Humanities Center.

At the corner of Chapel and Temple, Trinity is an Episcopalian congregation, continuing a tradition of Episcopalian and Church of England practices in the city since the early 1700s. Trinity Church is internationally known for its Choir of Men and Boys, which has performed multiple times at the White House and has traveled regularly to England and Wales. The church also supports many other cultural initiatives, including the Choir of Men and Girls and the Trinity Players theater troupe. It also puts together a terrific holiday craft fair every autumn.

Guess what? There was even a fourth church on the Green for a while, a Methodist Church erected in 1821. First Methodist (now First & Summerfield) Church moved to 425 College Street, at the corner of Elm, in 1848.

The Yale tradition of marching across the New Haven Green as part of the university’s graduation ceremonies every May apparently stems from the era before Yale had its own church, Battell Chapel (built in the mid-1870s). Students used to attend Center Church, and presumably paid their respects by parading by it in caps and gowns when their time at Yale ended. Conversely, over time Battell Chapel built up a congregation which included many New Haven residents without affiliations to the university. In 2005, the university ended its connection to the United Church of Christ and began exploring a new model of multi-denominational worship geared to the diverse Yale student body. Many older members of Battell joined the UCC congregations at United and Center.

The churches on the Green constantly interact with the passersby around their buildings. They minister to the homeless who sleep on the park benches. They cheer the runners in the Labor Day road race. They let their meeting houses be used for Arts & Ideas events.

Perhaps a new tradition will start with Saturday’s expression of good will and chocolate chips.

The First Church of Christ in New Haven (Center Church on the Green)
Temple Street between Chapel and Elm Streets, New Haven
(203) 787-0121
Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green
Corner of Temple & Chapel Streets, New Haven
(203) 624-3101
United Church on the Green
Corner of Temple & Elm Streets, New Haven
(203) 787-4195

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

More Stories