Praying in Princeton
By Anne Levin
Houses of worship figure prominently in Princeton’s history. The town and its environs are home to a sizable share of churches, a Quaker meetinghouse, and a synagogue, each with its own individual lineage. Some, like Stony Brook Friends Meetinghouse, stretch back to the early 18th century. On the younger end is All Saints Church, which began life in 1960.
As the winter holidays approach, we take a chronological look at some of Princeton’s longest-standing places to pray. A few are architectural landmarks. Others are housed in less distinctive buildings. But each has a history worthy of re-examination and recognition.
Engraved stones help tell the history of Stony Brook Friends Meetinghouse on Quaker Road. Situated in front of the building, they indicate it was built in 1726 and reconstructed in 1760, after a fire. The simple Quaker meetinghouse, still active, is adjacent to Battlefield Park and a short walk from the historic Clarke House, where British troops took up residence and sheltered their wounded after the Battle of Princeton. Soldiers killed in that battle lie in unmarked graves next to the meetinghouse. Among them is Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. He is honored with a plaque by the entrance gate.
St. Paul Roman Catholic Church at 214 Nassau Street traces its beginnings to about 1795, when St. Paul Parish was founded. Missionaries from New York, New Brunswick and Philadelphia would come to Princeton to celebrate Mass in an old farmhouse. By 1850, St. Paul Parish had a resident pastor and the farmhouse was too small to hold the growing congregation. The present site was acquired in 1857, and a small frame church was built. The current building was begun a decade later. St. Paul Catholic School, celebrating its 135th anniversary this year, was built in 1880 and is going strong, with more than 400 students.
Mt. Pisgah AME Church is the oldest African-American congregation in Princeton. Preacher Samson Peters started the church in 1832, naming it after a mountain ridge in ancient Palestine that is mentioned in the Old Testament. The congregation originally worshipped in a frame schoolhouse on Witherspoon Street. By 1839, land nearby was purchased from Samuel Bayard for the sum of $75. The church’s present building at Witherspoon and Maclean streets dates from 1860 and was rebuilt after a fire destroyed its predecessor. Look closely at the five tombstones in the tiny cemetery behind the building—they date back to the 1850s.
Trinity Episcopal Church at 33 Mercer Street was founded in by a group of prominent Princeton citizens. One of the wardens, builder Charles Steadman, erected a wooden building, which was replaced in 1868 with a stone Gothic-style church designed by Richard Mitchell Upjohn. Some 45 years later, when extensive renovations were made, architect Ralph Adams Cram replaced Upjohn’s original tower with a taller one and made additional enlargements. Membership boomed during the period after World War II. The year 1963 was noteworthy because of a devastating fire that necessitated reconstruction, and the beginning of two outreach efforts, Trinity Counseling Service and All Saints Church. A basement coffee house, The Catacombs, was popular in the 1970s.
With its Greek Revival columns and its commanding perch set back along Nassau Street, Nassau Presbyterian Church at #61 is among Princeton’s most recognizable landmarks. The current building is the third to stand on the site; its two predecessors burned down. The first fire erupted in 1813 when a sexton accidentally stored live coals in a closet. The church was rebuilt quickly, but another blaze consumed that building when a skyrocket set off to celebrate Independence Day landed on the roof. The original portion of the current building was dedicated in 1836 and designed by prolific Princeton builder Charles Steadman, who, as the story goes, used a façade plan purchased for $10 from noted Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter.
Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, Witherspoon Presbyterian Church at 124 Witherspoon Street was formed when 90 of the 131 African American members of Nassau Presbyterian were dismissed to form a church under the name of “The First Presbyterian Church of Colour of Princeton.” Social justice has long been a goal of the congregation. Original clergy and members spoke out against slavery, and later congregants were active in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the church’s most prominent ministers to stand up to racism was the father of Paul Robeson, Reverend William Drew Robeson, from 1879 to 1901. Today, members of the congregation come from many communities, backgrounds, and interests.
Methodist ministers used to visit Princeton in the latter half of the 18th century to meet and worship with small groups in private homes. Out of one of those groups grew to become the Princeton Methodist Episcopal Church in 1847. Now known as
Princeton United Methodist Church, the congregation had its first building on Nassau Street. It was razed in 1910 to make room for a larger church at the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue, where it stands today. Moses Taylor Pyne purchased and donated the land for the site. Further growth and various improvements have been made over the years. Chimes from the church tower’s electronic carillons, ringing twice a day, are a familiar sound to those who live and work in town.
Cram’s Princeton credits also included the Princeton University Chapel, built in 1928 to replace an earlier chapel that had burned eight years earlier. Cram was the University’s supervising architect from 1907 to 1930, and he designed the Graduate College, among other campus buildings. The Gothic Revival chapel, which recalls the style of an English church from the Middle Ages, cost $2.3 million to build—a far cry from the $10 million spent for a major restoration between 2000 and 2002. Stonemasons from Milan built the chapel using Pennsylvania sandstone trimmed with Indiana limestone. Pollard oak from England was used to carve the elaborate woodwork. Among those commemorated in the chapel’s stained glass windows are James Madison, Adlai Stevenson, and John Witherspoon.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1949, a group of people interested in forming a Unitarian church in Princeton met in a room at what was then Miss Fine’s School (now part of Princeton Day School). Soon after, on Easter Sunday, the first worship service was held in Murray Dodge Hall on the Princeton University campus. The congregation grew over the years, and by 1958 a permanent building at 50 Cherry Hill Road was begun for what is now called the Unitarian Universalist Church of Princeton. The church was expanded in 1967. Social activism has long been a major part of the church’s mission.
The few Jews who lived in Princeton during the 1920s traveled to Trenton to attend services there. But in 1926, the local Jewish community organized its own congregation, calling it B’nai Zion. By the 1940s, Sunday school classes were being held in private homes. The congregation hired its first rabbi, shared part-time with the newly established Hillel House on the Princeton University campus, in 1947. By 1949, The Jewish Center had adopted its first constitution and purchased a building on Olden Street. But that was quickly outgrown, and land at the current site, 435 Nassau Street, was purchased. The building was finished in 1958, and expanded in An additional property was purchased in the 1990s, extending the property further. The Jewish Center affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 2002.
Overcrowding at Trinity Church led to the founding of All Saints Church, on a large rural tract donated by Mrs. Moses Taylor Pyne, in 1960. The new chapel at 16 All Saints Road, in what was then known as Princeton Township, was envisioned to be an extension of Trinity. But by a decade later, All Saints had won status as an independent parish and is today one of the largest in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. The two churches share a cemetery on the grounds of All Saints, a reminder that they are still linked despite their separate identities.