Sketch of the "Old Round Church," 1805-1825

Sketch of the "Old Round Church," 1805–1825  (1895) 
by Oliver Ormsby Page

Originally printed in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 19, No. 3

Church, Page 350 (Sketch of the "Old Round Church" 1895).png






"Nothing is so really new as that which is old," and it were not strange if many who are familiar with the present beautiful edifice of Trinity Church, and even with its predecessor, the embodiment of Bishop Hopkins's genius, were yet ignorant, or at best vague, regarding the first edifice commonly known as the "Old Round Church." This was a small brick building, octagonal in shape, located on the triangular lot bounded by Wood Street, Liberty Avenue, and Sixth Avenue, for which property four hundred dollars were paid. The corner-stone was laid July 1, 1805, but the church was never consecrated, and no bishop visited Pittsburgh until Bishop White came in 1825. To defray the indebtedness of the church we find that the expedient of a lottery was resorted to. In the Pittsburgh Gazette for March of 1808, Anthony Beelen advertised tickets for sale in the Trinity Church lottery at his shop on Front Street, now First Avenue; highest prize ten thousand dollars; tickets then selling for a dollar and a half. This was an approved means of raising money in those days, and was in accord with the prevailing moral sentiment.

On September 4, 1805, a perpetual charter was secured from Governor Thomas McKean, constituting "the Reverend John Taylor the present minister of the said church, Presley Nevill[e] and Samuel Roberts the present wardens of the said church and Nathaniel Irish, Joseph Barker, Jeremiah Barker, Andrew [Nathaniel] Richardson, Nathaniel Bedford, Oliver Ormsby, George McGunnegle, George Robinson, Robert Magee, Alexander McLaughlin, William Cecil and Joseph Davis the present vestrymen of the said church and their successors duly elected, nominated and appointed in their place and stead . . . a corporation and body politic in law and in fact to have continuance forever by the name, stile and title of the minister, church-wardens and vestrymen of Trinity Church in Pittsburgh."

As far back as September 24, 1787, "John Penn, Junior, and John Penn of the City of Philadelphia, Esquires, late Proprietors of Pennsylvania," for the nominal consideration of "Five Shillings, current, lawful current money of Pennsylvania," had deeded two and one-half lots of ground to "the Honorable John Gibson, Esq., John Ormsby, merchant, Devereux Smith, gent., and Doctor Nathaniel Bedford all of the town of Pittsburgh, in the County of Westmoreland, in Pennsylvania aforesaid, Trustees of the congregation of Episcopalian Protestant Church, commonly called the Church of England, in the said town of Pittsburgh, . . . their heirs and assigns, forever, in trust nevertheless, for and a site for a house of religious worship and burial place for the use of said religious society or congregation and their successors in the said town of Pittsburgh . . . and to and for no other use, intent or purpose whatsoever." Allegheny County was not erected until the following year, consequently the deed was recorded at Greensburg, the seat of Westmoreland County. In harmony with the design of the Founder to form an asylum for all religions, the Messrs. Penn, while themselves churchmen, deeded the adjoining two and one-half lots to the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church the same day, and on June 18, 1788, John Penn "the younger" deeded two lots to the trustees of the German Evangelical Protestant Church.

John Penn, Jr., and John Penn were grandsons of the Founder, and had been dispossessed of all their landed inheritance in Pennsylvania by the Revolution, except such tenths or manor lands as had been set apart for them prior to the Declaration of Independence. Of these, John Penn, Jr., who was a poet and a great man of fashion in his day, owned three-fourths, and his cousin John Penn, the last lieutenant-governor of the province, one-fourth. The difference in their holdings will explain why their names are given in the deed in the order they are.

The four trustees lived at the most interesting period of the history of Western Pennsylvania, and their lives are a part of the history of the region. Colonel John Gibson, called "Horsehead" Gibson by the Indians, sometime commandant of Fort Pitt, is buried in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh. Dr. Bedford lies buried at the head of South Twelfth Street, on the south side of Pittsburgh, overlooking the former town of Birmingham, which he laid out.[1]

John Ormsby is the only one of the four trustees buried in Trinity Church-yard. It was Mr. Ormsby's wont to write on the fly-leaves of his books, inserting extra sheets for the purpose in some cases, and we find in these personal notes frequent evidence of his religious feeling and resignation under affliction.

Although the land conveyed by the Penns was not the site of the first church, it was from the beginning used as a burying-ground. Here are to be found the graves of British officers, Revolutionary heroes, early lawyers, doctors, and men of affairs; even an Indian chief has here found Christian burial, and, what is the more remarkable, his body reposed beneath the chancel of "Old Trinity Church," as the second edifice erected in 1825 is commonly called.[2]

The silent "God's acre" in the midst of the city's busy life forms a most interesting and impressive link with the past, serving to remind us that "in the midst of life we are in death." In this quiet spot more serious thoughts naturally obtrude themselves, and we are for the moment transported "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife." In this connection it is worthy of note that the church-yard of Stoke Park, the seat of John Penn, Jr., near Windsor, in England, is the scene of Gray's immortal elegy, and the poet is there buried.

The "Old Round Church" had forty-two high-backed pews, similar to those in churches of that period, besides a gallery. Those in the two front rows were square, as well as high-backed, and were specially attractive, according to childish notions, since they offered more opportunity for play of a quiet order. For evening service, or whenever necessary, the church was lighted by candles held in tin sconces arranged as side-lights along the wall, and in cold weather the church was heated by stoves. The sexton performed his office for both Trinity and the First Presbyterian Church. His occupation is given in the 1815 directory as grave-digger, which lugubrious employment, as was customary, he combined with his duties as sexton. The parish being poor and struggling, it was the custom to send the rector's surplices to the houses of the different members of the congregation to be washed. One time he came to my informant's mother's on this errand, and the children gathering about him to hear what he had to say, for he was quite a character, she heard her mother ask him how he did, to which the little old Irishman replied, "Och! dull times, dear; I've not put a spade in the ground for I can't tell you whin." Such was his efficiency in this line that the proverbial query used to be, who would bury this son of Erin when he had buried everybody else.

The Rev. John Taylor was the first rector of Trinity Church. He came to Pittsburgh in 1797, and labored here for more than twenty years. He was familiarly and affectionately known as Father Taylor, and by the children as Pappy Taylor. Prior to the building of the "Old Round Church," services were held in private dwellings, public halls, and in the court-room on the second floor of the first court-house,—a two-story brick building which stood on the west side of the Diamond where the market-house now is. It had a wooden steeple and bell, which on Sundays became a "church-going bell" and urged the populace to "Come to church!" Be it remembered that on January 8, 1800, the official services attending the mock funeral of Washington were held in this "upper room," devoted alike to law and religion, the Episcopal service being read by the Rev. Mr. Sample and an oration delivered by Colonel Presley Neville; the whole attended with much ceremony.

"Father" Taylor, like the Rev. John Henry Hopkins (a later incumbent, afterwards first Bishop of Vermont), was not originally a member of the Episcopal Church, but, through the influence chiefly of William Cecil, was induced to take orders and come here. He was, according to Bishop Scarborough,[3] a man of strong mind, more fond of natural science, perhaps, than of theology; and such was his love of astronomy that he sometimes spent the entire night in the open air, watching the movements of the heavenly bodies. He made the astronomical calculations for Cramer's "almanacks" and others of a later date, and helped eke out a livelihood by teaching school, being an assistant instructor in the old Pittsburgh Academy. Mr. Cuming, in his "Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country," characterizes him as an able mathematician, a liberal philosopher, and a man of unaffected simplicity of manners, and describes his discourses as good moral lectures, well adapted to the understanding of his hearers. One of his sermons being too long for the morning service, he stopped, saying, "Brethren, we'll resarve the rest for the afternoon's divarsion." "Father" Taylor was killed by lightning at Shenango, Pennsylvania, in 1838, where he is buried in an unmarked grave.

The first election of vestrymen recorded in the early minute-book was held on Easter Monday, April 3, 1820, the wardens being chosen at a subsequent meeting of the vestry from among their number. Oliver Ormsby and Peter Mowry were the wardens; Morgan Neville, George Poe, Jr., Abner Barker, Abraham Long, Joseph Davis, Peter Beard, Charles L. Volz, Walter Forward, Nathaniel Richardson, Samuel Roberts, Thomas Cromwell, and John Reno, the vestrymen. A souvenir of these times is an old receipt, signed by the then wardens, in the possession of a granddaughter of the first George Shiras, of which the following is a copy:

"Pittsburgh 27 March 1818—We certify that George Shiras has settled his claims against Trinity Church and it appears he is a contributor of the sum of Three hundred Dollars to said Church.

O. Ormsby. Wardens."
Peter Mowry.

The singing in the "Old Round Church" was led by an organ, then a great rarity in the Western country, on which Mr. Hopkins performed, his wife and children composing the choir. When he became the lay-reader, previous to his taking orders, Mrs. Hopkins became the organist.

The following were the respective pew-holders in Trinity Church September 1, 1821, as given in the early minute-book: No. 1, Christopher Cowan; No. 2, Abraham Long; No. 3, Dr. Peter Mowry; No. 4, Alexander Johnston, Jr.; No. 5, Oliver Ormsby; No. 6, Morgan Neville; No. 7, George Poe, Jr.; No. 8, Abner Barker; No. 9, Nathaniel Richardson; No. 10, David McGunnegle; No. 11, probably the "strangers' pew;" No. 12, Joseph Barclay; No. 13, Peter Beard; No. 14, Samuel Kingston; No. 15, John H. Hopkins, then in the legal profession; No. 16, Thomas Enochs; No. 17, Mary Cecil; No. 18, George Shiras; No. 19, Mrs. Kerwin and J. Lightner; No. 20, Thomas Barlow, formerly secretary of legation under his uncle, Joel Barlow, minister to France, 1811–12; No. 21, Charles L. Volz; No. 22, Samuel Roberts, Jr.; No. 23, John Bourke; No. 24, half to Sarah Mark and Sarah Donnolly, one-fourth to William Fearns, and one-fourth to Robert Towne; No. 25, Mrs. Sarah (Lowrey) Collins; No. 26, John Craig; No. 27, William Arthurs; No. 28, Charles Reno and Austin Drury; No. 29, Mrs. Sidney O. Gregg; No. 30, David Holmes; No. 31, Arnold Eichbaum; No. 32, Captain James R. Butler, who commanded the "Pittsburgh Blues" in the War of 1812; No. 33, John L. Glaser; No. 34, John Reno; No. 35, John K. McNickle; No. 36, Joseph Davis; No. 37, Campbell, Muller, Clayland, and Brown; No. 38, Dr. S. R. Holmes and A. L. Kerr; No. 39, Alexander Glass and Ralph Pittock; No. 40, George Connelly and Mrs. Patterson; No. 41, Walter Forward, the eminent lawyer, Secretary of the Treasury under Tyler, and afterwards President Judge of the District Court of Allegheny County; No. 42, Robert Elder and James Rutter. The pew rentals ranged from ten dollars to twenty-two and one-half dollars per year, and the total annual rentals were five hundred and fifty-five dollars. In truth, a day of small things.

The appearance of a fair bride of that period at church shortly after her marriage is recalled; what made the most impression on a youthful mind was the light-blue satin cape she wore, lined with white satin. And this brings to mind the funeral of a friend of the bride's mother, Mrs. Emily Morgan Simms, daughter of Colonel Presley Neville. Mrs. Simms died at the Kentucky and Ohio Hotel of Mrs. Kerr, on the northeast corner of Front Street, now First Avenue, and Market Street, on the 5th of February, 1821, when on a visit to her native city, her husband, Colonel W. D. Simms, being a resident of Washington City. The funeral was extremely imposing, and to persons of the present time would appear very singular; but at that time it was the custom to walk in procession following the bier which held the remains, and which was carried on the shoulders of the bearers. Walking, four on each side of the bier as honorary pall-bearers, were eight ladies dressed in white muslin, white stockings and slippers, their heads covered with long white lace veils reaching to their feet. The ladies who acted in that capacity, according to the best recollection of my narrator, were the following-named intimate friends of the deceased: Mrs. John McDonald, Mrs. Oliver Ormsby, Mrs. Hollingsworth, Mrs. Sarah Collins, Mrs. Magnus M. Murray, Mrs. Peter Mowry, Mrs. George Poe, Jr., and Mrs. James R. Butler. The procession proceeded up Front Street to Wood Street, and along Wood to Trinity Church-yard, followed by a long line of mourning relatives and friends, extending the whole length of the street. The whole population of the town seemed to have turned out, the sidewalks being lined with spectators. The service was read at the grave by the Rev. William Thompson, who was then the rector of the "Old Round Church."

"Once more revived in fancy's magic glass,
I see in state the long procession pass."

  1. Dr. Bedford came to Pittsburgh shortly after 1770, and was the first practising physician in what is now Allegheny County. In 1786 there were two physicians here, and it has been a frequent matter of conjecture who the other was. In the Pittsburgh Gazette, under date of March 24, 1787, we find named among the trustees of the Pittsburgh Academy, afterwards merged into the Western University of Pennsylvania, then incorporated, "Doctors Nathaniel Bedford and Thomas Parker." Dr. George Stevenson, another early physician, came here from Carlisle in 1794, and was probably the third physician here.
  2. In the Pennsylvania Magazine, Vol. IV. p. 122 et seq., a letter from Bishop Upfold is printed, giving the epitaphs of the following from Trinity Church-yard, although not transcribed literally in all cases: Mio-qua-coo na-caw or Red Pole, Captain Richard Mather of the Royal Americans, Captain Samuel Dawson of the 8th Pennsylvania Foot, John and Jane (McAllister) Ormsby, and Major Abraham Kirkpatrick.
  3. The Sermon preached at the Farewell Service in Old Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 3, 1869, by the Rector, the Rev. John Scarborough. P. 21. Pittsburgh: J. R. Weldin & Co., 1869.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.