Divine Loophole

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As long as New York remained the small place it was in Queen Anne’s day, the value of the Queen’s Farm remained equally small and Trinity Church was much like most other struggling young American churches. But even in the eighteenth century, Trinity used its resources for worthy causes. As new parishes were established in New York and New England, Trinity contributed to their endowments. By the middle of the nineteenth century, more than ninety had been fostered by Trinity, which has long been known as the Mother of Churches. When King’s College (now Columbia University) was established in 1754, Trinity deeded it a portion of the Queen’s Farm as its original campus.

Then the Erie Canal opened in 1825. It quickly became the principal means for moving the produce of the burgeoning Middle West to the East Coast, and the situation of the city of New York and thus Trinity Church was utterly transformed.

Within a few years New York had become the greatest boomtown the world has ever known, adding on average ten miles of developed street front per year as the city began its headlong rush up Manhattan Island. As it did so, it engulfed the Queen’s Farm, and the value of the land soared. In only a few years what had once been fields, woods, and swamp became 275 acres in the heart of the country’s largest, richest city. And Trinity Church became one of the city’s greatest landlords.

To give just one example of how this transformed Trinity’s circumstances, consider this. In 1767 the church leased about a tenth of the Queen’s Farm to Abraham Mortier, paymaster for British forces stationed in New York. He paid £52 a year for the ground lease, a lease that ran, as was not uncommon in those days, for ninety-nine years. Although there was a modest escalator clause, by 1866, when the Mortier lease expired, Trinity was receiving only $269 a year in rent from the land. The following year, however, having negotiated a new lease, the church rented the property for $138,586, a 50,000 percent increase in income.

In only a few years, Trinity’s fields, woods, and swamps became 275 acres in the heart of the country’s largest, richest city.

With this sudden and vast wealth, by the turn of the twentieth century Trinity Church was an ecclesiastical empire with eighty-five hundred communicants and nine chapels scattered around New York City besides the main church itself. Thirty clergy were on the staff. In addition, the church ran schools, clinics, and missions and aided other churches, many of them not even Episcopal. It was almost a diocese within a diocese.

Naturally this wealth attracted many people who wanted to claim it for their own. As early as 1833 descendants of the original seventeenth-century owner of the farm sued to obtain title, claiming it had never properly passed into the possession of the crown and therefore Queen Anne had had no right to give it to the church.

They lost the case, but with everincreasing billions at stake, others have been trying ever since. Indeed, so many have tried that the church now uses a form letter to respond to the endless stream of claims. More than one New York confidence man has gone to jail not for selling the Brooklyn Bridge but for selling fake deeds to the Queen’s Farm.

Unlike all the other of New York’s early churches, which followed as their congregations moved uptown, Trinity remained on its original site. In 1846 it built the present church, the third on that spot. Being already the richest parish,-the new church was the city’s grandest. For the next thirty years it was the tallest building in the city. But because of the shifting population, Trinity has long been in close proximity to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. As its affluent old New York parishioners died off or moved too far uptown, the congregation has slowly changed. Today a substantial portion are black immigrants from the British West Indies and elsewhere who come by subway from Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Regardless, despite a congregation that is now mostly in very modest circumstances, Trinity Church continues to use its vast patrimony productively. Having, over the last three centuries, aided or endowed no fewer than 1,642 institutions, it still gives away $2,000,000 a year to worthy causes while maintaining a very active ministry, including extensive television and radio programming.

Trinity even pays taxes. It voluntarily pays all the real estate taxes on its income-producing properties as its contribution to the city whose greatness made Trinity’s gift from Queen Anne so very profitable.