The Rev. Dr. Eben Edwards Beardsley,
first rector of St. Thomas's Church (1848-1891)
The "old" St. Thomas's on Elm Street, where the congregation worshipped from 1855 to 1939
St. Thomas’s was founded in 1848, by a group of lay people who felt the need for a third Episcopal church in New Haven (the first two being Trinity and St. Paul’s). They worked efficiently: after a first meeting on February 24, they established bylaws, secured a worship location, and called a priest. Their new rector presided over the Church’s first worship service on Easter Sunday, April 23.
The congregation initially rented space for worship in the Orange Street Lecture Room (near Crown Street). In 1849 the Church purchased a lot, located on Elm Street between Church Street and Orange Street, and constructed a “temporary chapel.” On the same site, the Church built a permanent building, of Portland (Connecticut) brownstone, that was consecrated in 1855.
Over time that area became more commercial and families moved north, and by 1923, the Church began to consider relocation. The goal became to move as far north on Whitney Avenue as possible within the New Haven city limits, and the church secured the current property. Funds were limited, so the Church, lacking a parish hall, built that first, with completion in 1931. After funding was provided through a large bequest, the church itself was constructed and consecrated in 1939. Both are in the English gothic style, with masonry walls of Glastonbury (Connecticut) granite and a slate roof. Relocated from the old church were the pulpit dating to 1894 and the original 1855 lectern and font. The architects were Allen & Collens, who also designed Riverside Church and The Cloisters, two iconic houses of worship in New York City.
As to the old Elm Street church, in 1948 a bank in the art deco style was literally constructed around it. The most recent owner, Webster Bank, sold the building to a hotel developer. Demolition begun in late 2019 briefly exposed the old church before tearing it down. The site remains empty, as the hotel has not yet been constructed.
In 175 years, St. Thomas’s has had only six rectors: the Rev. Eben Edwards Beardsley, DD (1848‒1891), the Rev. William A. Beardsley, DD (1892‒1934), the Rev. Robert S. Flockhart, DD (1934‒1949), the Rev. William R. Robbins, S.T.D. (1949‒1984), the Rev. Michael F. Ray (1985‒2015), and the Rev. Keri T. Aubert (2015‒present). The parish has had many curates and assistant priests, as well as innumerable seminarian interns.
Eben Edwards Beardsley, the Church’s first rector, was also its longest-serving: he served for over 43 years, until his death at age 83. Rather fittingly, he died on December 21, the Feast of St. Thomas. Beardsley was a noted leader in the Diocese of Connecticut and the national Episcopal Church. He attended eight consecutive General conventions and was twice elected President of the House of Deputies. An important early historian of the Episcopal Church, his books included a history of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut and biographies of Samuel Seabury (the first American bishop), Samuel Johnson (founding president of King’s College, now Columbia University), and William Samuel Johnson (an American “founding father”). Many of his sermons were published individually, and a collection of his sermons was published shortly after his death. Beardsley’s wife, Jane Margaret Matthews, died in 1851, at the tragically young age of 27. Their daughter, Elisabeth, was only 6 years old. Eben never remarried. Jane was a published poet; shortly before his own death, Eben published a collection of her work, The Unforgotten and Other Poems. Original oil portraits of Eben and Jane hang in the church Lounge.
Beardsley’s successor was his nephew, William A. Beardsley. At the time of the elder Beardsley’s death, the younger Beardsley was serving as his curate; when called as rector, he had been ordained priest less than a year. This Beardsley would set in motion the church relocation. After retiring from parish ministry, he wrote History of St. Thomas's Church, New Haven, Connecticut, 1848-1941, and The Life of the Reverend Eben Edwards Beardsley.
Robert S. Flockhart would see the church into its new home and help guide St. Thomas’s community through the Second World War.
William R. Robbins is most noted for having established St. Thomas’s Day School in 1956. It began as a small nursery school with a few children and two volunteer staffers. Under the leadership of Robbins and Dr. Dorothy Asch, it became by 1970 an elementary school serving children through grade six. Now in its 67th year, St. Thomas’s Day School continues to excel as a center of both academic excellence and child-centered learning.
During his tenure, Michael R. Ray embraced the liturgical renewal of the time with measures including introduction of the freestanding altar. He would also lead St. Thomas’s in becoming a leader in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut in affirming ministry to and full inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+. Since 1986 St. Thomas's has been the rehearsal home of the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus. In 2000 the vestry adopted a statement making our message of LGBTQ+ inclusion more explicit. And in 2004 the Vestry adopted a resolution calling for St. Thomas’s clergy to treat all couples equally in administering the sacrament of marriage. The result was a moratorium on weddings at St. Thomas’s that lasted for two years.
It would seem that music has always been an important part of life at St. Thomas’s. The original organizers of the church, before securing a place to worship or calling a priest, procured an organ. They authorized procurement of the organ with this resolution:
Whereas, in the conduction of Public Religious Worship Music has ever been considered an important and beneficial part of the same, and believing that such care should be taken to render this act of devotion serious, and impressive to our outward ear as well as acceptable to our Heavenly Father, therefore for the encouragement and promotion of Sacred Music and for the better assistance in the execution of the same:
Resolved; That the Wardens and Vestry of St. Thomas’ Church be authorized to procure an Organ, upon such terms as they may deem best for the interests and welfare of said Church.”
The organ was originally located in the gallery of the Elm Street church; relocation to the chancel was completed in 1908.The first documentation of a choir occurs in a Vestry resolution of 1849. The first vested choir, a choir of men and boys, was introduced in 1889, installed in choir stalls that had been added to the chancel. In 1893 Charles Ives, then a student at Hopkins Grammar School, served as organist at St. Thomas’s. He would go on to be an important and groundbreaking composer.
The current organ is original to the current building. It is in the American Romantic style, incorporating pipework from earlier instruments by Steere & Turner, Hall, and Aeolian-Skinner. There are 61 ranks spread across three manuals and pedals. The instrument was last rebuilt with tonal additions and updated components in 1991.
For decades the St. Thomas’s Choir has enjoyed a choral excellence. In recent years is has sung services at Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal, Windsor Castle, Gloucester Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and Washington National Cathedral. The choir includes volunteers and professional section leaders. Its repertoire is drawn from the rich tradition of Anglican choral music, spanning many centuries. The Schola Antiqua is a professional chamber ensemble made up of members drawn from the St. Thomas’s Choir.