- Trinity Voices
Introducing Our Monthly Series, “From the Historian”
Dear Trinity Church and friends,
Greetings! My name is Cynthia Staples. I have worked at Trinity since 2007, and, for the past few years, I have served as Visitor Services Supervisor, working with Donna Stenwall in our gift shop and in support of our tour program. Recently, my position expanded to include a role as Historian with an eye toward approaching Trinity’s history with a focus on issues of race.
By calling, I am a writer and a photographer and ultimately a storyteller. It is in the family blood. I grew up in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Family and friends would sit on the front porch and tell stories for hours and hours. It was especially powerful when elders would share stories that informed why the present was as it was and planted seeds for what might be in the future.
During this “Independence Day” week – as our nations recall the occasion when some, but not all, were made free – I write to you with the first of what will become a once-monthly reflection on Trinity’s rich, complex history. I share these stories without judgement or agenda, other than looking truthfully at the past we inherit as part of the Trinity community. Some of the stories might inspire, while others will surely challenge.
In the time that I’ve worked at Trinity Church, and in recent years researching its long history, I’ve firmly come to believe if you tell the story of Trinity you tell the story of America and indeed of the world. That holds true when looking through the lens of race, and the illumination of any benefits derived from slavery and the slave trade. We move (or soon will move again) through a building primarily constructed between 1872 and 1877, more than a decade after the Civil War ended slavery in this country. What connections to the past can be made that shine a light on this present building through that lens? One avenue is to look at its makers, those who constructed and decorated this historic structure, and reflect upon the influences on their lives.
Consider John La Farge.
John La Farge was the American artist of French descent who orchestrated the interior decoration of Trinity Church. He led a team of young artists including Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Francis Davis Millet to produce one of the most colorful interiors in American church architecture. La Farge was an accomplished artist by the time he was engaged to design Trinity’s interior decoration. Though more well-known today as a stained-glass designer, he first gained acclaim as a painter.
John La Farge was born in New York in 1835. His father Jean Frederic de la Farge (before he anglicized his name to Jean Frederick La Farge) was a French emigre born in France in 1786. As a very young man he was sent as part of a military troop to Santo Domingo (now Haiti) by Napolean Bonaparte to quell the rising rebellion among the island’s enslaved people. La Farge’s particular troop was defeated but his life was spared by Haitian General Guerrier. He remained in Santo Domingo until learning of a plot by the enslaved to kill their oppressors on Easter Day 1806. He fled, returned to Europe, and engaged in West Indies trade, a trade which at that time often included merchants’ involvement in the transatlantic slave trade or pursuing business interests that benefitted from the labor of enslaved people.
La Farge was quite entrepreneurial and once he made his way to New York he invested in real estate in New York as well as in plantations in the recently acquired territory of Louisiana. He would anglicize his name in 1832, the same year he married Marie Louise Binsse de Saint-Victor. Of French descent, she had been born in New York in 1813 where her family had settled after fleeing the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s. Her father Louis Francois de Paul Binsse de Saint-Victor had been one of the largest plantation owners on the island. Louis Francois de Paul Binsse de Saint-Victor was also a painter. At least, that’s what artist John La Farge recalls in his memoir:
"I was just six years old, and I had wished to learn to draw and paint ... a mere boy's wish. My father took me to my grandfather, the father of my mother, who had for some time been a painter ... I never knew exactly how he came by his training. ... My grandfather had been obliged to do something for himself, on coming to the United States with wife and children, and his escape from San Domingo and the ruin of his plantation and wealth, for his plantation was one of the largest in the islands or on the mainland. ... His slaves, of course, were free and his plantation destroyed and his mansion and all about it turned into wilderness. ... I remember my grandfather expressing a dislike to the institution of slavery. This came about through something he said, which I vaguely remember, of his having gone to the coast of Africa as a youngster, to get slaves; where he saw of course some of the horrors of what was to be the basis of his fortune. ..."
The miniatures of Louis Francois de Paul Binsse de Saint-Victor can be found in museums to this day, as can the paintings and stained glass of his grandson John La Farge whose artistic imprint is forever upon the historic structure of Trinity Church. Their legacies – like our American history – mingle beauty and horror, telling a complicated story important to remember.
See you in the church,
For more information: John La Farge a memoir and a study by Royal Cortissoz https://archive.org/details/johnlafargememoi00cortrich/mode/2up