“The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts: and in this place I will give Shalom.”
St. Thomas's Episcopal Church was founded in 1848, the third Episcopal church in New Haven, which was then a city of about 20,000 people. A group of sixteen people met to organize the church on February 24. (It is said that the choice of the name St. Thomas's was in part a way to honor the Bishop of Connecticut, whose name was Thomas Church Brownell.) Two months later, on Easter Sunday, the new church had its first service--in the Orange Street Lecture Room near Crown Street--and welcomed its first rector, The Rev. Eben Edwards Beardsley
Rev. Beardsley (1808 - 1891) was a native of Huntington, Connecticut, and a graduate of Trinity College. He was the rector of St. Peter's Church in Cheshire when he answered St. Thomas's call, and from St. Thomas's he would never leave: He was rector until his death on St. Thomas's Day in 1891--nearly 44 years. Besides being active in diocesan and national church affairs, Rev. Beardsley was a well-known historian of the Church. His books included a history of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut and biographies of Samuel Seabury (the first American bishop) and Samuel Johnson (the first president of Columbia University).
Within a year of Rev. Beardsley's arrival, the church had acquired a lot at the north end of town, on Elm Street between Church and Orange and was building a temporary chapel of brick that would be completed on August 12, 1849. Six years later, the parish dedicated a new, permanent church, a Gothic structure of Portland stone designed by Wills and Dudley, prominent church architects of the day. A parish hall would later be built on the site.Late in Rev. Beardsley's tenure, his nephew William A. Beardsley became lay reader for the church while attending the Berkeley Divinity School, then in Middletown. Upon his graduation, he became curate of the church, and upon his uncle's death he was called as rector. The younger Beardsley would serve nearly as long as the elder, retiring in 1934 after 42 years. (During Dr. Beardsley's tenure, in 1893, a student at Hopkins Grammar School named Charles Ives
served as St. Thomas's organist. He later became one of America's most noted composers.)
In his sermon commemorating the 75th anniversary of St. Thomas's in 1923, Dr. Beardsley asked his church to consider its future. Elm Street and the area surrounding the church, which had once been a residential neighborhood, had become part of the commercial district of downtown New Haven. Meanwhile, suburban growth in northern New Haven and Hamden had placed many families in an area without a church. St. Thomas's decided to move closer to these families and bought a lot near the New Haven-Hamden line, on Whitney Avenue between Ogden and Cliff Streets. In 1930, the church hired the Boston architecture firm of Allen, Collens and Willis to design a parish house--the more pressing need--on the new site. The building was in use by 1931.
Although the parish hall was funded with a mortgage, the church had planned to use the sale of their downtown property to fund the construction of the church proper. But plunging real estate values made that impossible for some time. A solution came in the will of C. Purdy Lindsley, M.D., a longtime parishioner and vestryman who died in 1937. Dr. Lindsley left $150,000 in his will to pay for the church building, and also left his home on St. Ronan Street to be used as a rectory (along with an endowment for its upkeep). With Lindsley's bequest, the church was completed in 1938. On October 8, 1939 at 4:00pm, the Bishop of Connecticut consecrated the new church at 830 Whitney Avenue. Dr. Beardsley, Rector Emeritus, preached the sermon, choosing for his text Haggai 2:9 (quoted above.)
Dr. Beardsley resigned as rector in 1934 and was succeeded in that same year by Rev. Robert S. Flockhart, D.D. Rev. Flockhart saw the church into its new home and helped guide the St. Thomas's community through the Second World War.
Rev. Flockhart was succeeded by Rev. William Robbins in 1949. In 1956, Father Robbins established St. Thomas's Day School
. In the beginning, the Day School was a small nursery school staffed by volunteers. By 1970, under Father Robbins's leadership, it had become a respected elementary school serving children from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Father Robbins became Rector Emeritus in 1985, when the Rev. Michael F. Ray was named the fifth rector of the 136-year-old parish.
The years of Father Ray's tenure continue to be "history in the making," and only the passage of time will identify those things of enduring significance. However, a few observations seem worth making. The congregation has become significantly younger; fully one-third of the parish is now under the age of sixteen. The identity of St. Thomas's is significantly bound with children, youth and young adults. A closer, more cooperative working relationship between parish and Day School resulted in the building of a classroom addition in 1991 and the current expansion and renovation of Robbins Hall. Ministry to teens and pre-teens has increased with the addition of a Junior Youth Group and the involvement of Day School students as well as parish members. We are a vital "teaching parish" and serve as a site for Supervised Ministries for seminarians at Yale and Berkeley Divinity School. The clergy and laity of this parish have shared significantly in the discernment process and the shaping of ordained ministry for some twenty-five men and women. From Connecticut to California, New England to Appalachia, parishes are served by priests who began their practical parish experience and ministry at St. Thomas's.
In 1998, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary with a special service and a procession from its old home on Elm Street (which is now a bank) to its "new" home on Whitney Avenue.
Over the last couple of decades, St. Thomas's has moved toward a fuller inclusion of all kinds of people in our common life, with a particular focus on welcoming lesbian and gay people. Since 1986, St. Thomas's has been the home of the Connecticut Gay Men's Chorus. In 2000, the vestry adopted a statement making our message of inclusion more explicit. And in 2004, the vestry adopted a resolution calling for St. Thomas's clergy to treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples equally in administering the sacrament of marriage. Since the Diocese of Connecticut prohibited the blessing of same-sex relationships at the time, the result was a moratorium on performing weddings at St. Thomas's that lasted for two years. (Same-sex unions may now be blessed in the diocese, so the church now offers ceremonies of blessing for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.)
Other milestones that mark our recent history include an extensive restoration of our historic pipe organ and a careful blending of formal liturgy and fine music with a familial embracing of children in our midst. The parish continues to grow in faithful stewardship, both of its people and its property, as it grows in service and ministry to the greater New Haven community. Our recent history is very much "in the making" and we invite you to join us in making it.