American Cathedral in Paris celebrates its 100th anniversary

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Mar 31, 2023

[Episcopal News Service—Paris, France] On March 18, 1923, the fifth Sunday in Lent, the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, popularly known as the American Cathedral in Paris, was consecrated and became the seat of the bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Churches in Europe. The consecration came more than three-quarters of a century after the then-Holy Trinity Church formed as the first Episcopal Church outside the United States.

One hundred years later, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2023, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry stepped up into the pulpit and preached about the binding power of love to a full house during a Eucharist celebrating the cathedral’s 100th anniversary.

Origins, the presiding bishop said, are important. “The Church of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity, that is about God, isn’t it?” A God, he said, whom “we know to be” and here he asked for the congregation’s participation, “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit,” they responded.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches March 26 Holy Eucharist at the American Cathedral in Paris. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

As the Trinity, God can embrace and contain diversity amid unity, variety amid singularity, universality amid particularity, he continued. And it was St. Augustine of Hippo who wrote, “the doctrine of the Trinity means that God is a community of love, and it is that love between the persons of the Trinity that binds God together,” Curry said. “My brothers and sisters, if we live in love, that same love energy that is the binding power of God will bind us together as the children of God.”

Throughout the March 24-26 weekend, which included a raucous celebration including a champagne toast, a singing of “Happy Birthday,” live music, and later a DJ and dancing in the nave on Friday night, a revival on Saturday and the Sunday Eucharist, the cathedral’s history, which includes standing through World War I, World War II and a Nazi occupation, and the Cold War, is an ever-changing story of witness, ministry and renewal into the present day.

Before the Great War, American industrialists and financiers, people of status and means, would spend three, four, five months in Paris and then go home, the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington, bishop-in-charge of the convocation since 2019, told Episcopal News Service in advance of the weekend’s festivities.

“After World War I, that’s totally, totally changed. Now you’ve had this experience of literally millions of Americans coming to Europe, in uniform, and some of them dying here, and many of them buried here. That changes America’s sense of Europe and its sense of its relationship to Europe,” he said. “Europe was a place we had left and left behind, and all of a sudden, it was a place we were, in some way, reconnected to in deep, organic ways.”

Then came Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation of American expats, writers and artists, who lived in Paris along with Ireland’s James Joyce, Spain’s Pablo Picasso and others in the 1920s. Then came the Second World War and the German occupation of parts of France, including the capital, Paris.

“This church is one of very few Episcopal churches and the only Episcopal cathedral ever occupied by an enemy during war. This was a German military chapel from June 1940 until the liberation in 1944,” Edington said. “This building was felt to be lost … and that was hard.”

Read more about the history of the American Cathedral in Paris in the Fall 2022 edition of Trinité, the cathedral’s biennial magazine.

Then Europe began to rebuild and the Cold War came, which brought more Americans and American soldiers, an increase in U.S. global influence, and the cathedral maintained an Episcopal presence throughout. “It’s sort of helped the community make meaning and find its faith in all those times,” the bishop said.

It was after WWI, though, and following the American cathedral movement, he said, that the vestry of Holy Trinity Church decided there ought to be a cathedral in Europe. Still, at that time, there was no diocese, no convocation, rather Episcopal churches would organize and incorporate themselves and apply to General Convention for recognition.

“They were autonomous parishes that were determined to provide Episcopal worship in the place where they had gathered. They never saw themselves as little chapels for only Americans, they’re churches who welcomed anybody,” Edington said. “[Today] I don’t have a single congregation that’s majority American. This one [the cathedral] there are a lot of Americans here, but no longer a majority.

“We’re a church within American history, but we’re not an American church. That’s an important distinction.”

People write messages on the “Tapestry of our Future” following the March 26 Eucharist at the American Cathedral in Paris. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

On Friday, Episcopalians celebrated the cathedral’s anniversary. On Saturday, the convocation came together in revival to look more closely at ministry in context and learn from one another, and during the Sunday Eucharist, it all began to come together.

“The most glorious thing about the 100th anniversary is, in a way, letting go of the past as much as we honor it, and leaning into the next 100 years,” the Very Rev. Timothy Safford, who has served as interim dean for over a year, told ENS.

One hundred years ago the cathedral’s leadership and congregation couldn’t have imagined what the cathedral would stand in witness to, the role it would play in history or what it would be today, he said. “They couldn’t even imagine then, and we can’’ really imagine 100 years from now, but what we do today will matter 100 years from now, and that’s why I think Jesus always says, you know, ‘I’m gonna go out ahead of you,” Stafford said. “And I feel like we’re meant to be called to the church that’s out ahead of us. I’m hoping the cathedral and the congregation are trying to find Jesus out ahead of us.”

In as much as Episcopalians from across the Episcopal Convocation of Europe came together to celebrate the cathedral’s centenary, they also came together to celebrate diversity, as the now-20-year-old-convocation, which has nine parishes and at least another nine missions in six countries — France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Georgia — begins to live into its identity as a “church on the move,” a theme explored during the revival (a story to come).

In bringing Episcopalians together to celebrate the cathedral’s centenary, the larger motive was to begin to live into what it means to be the convocation’s cathedral, a coordinating point of shared ministry.

“[The cathedral’s] spire is the beacon that sends out this message of hope to all of our churches in Europe, and that’s a kind of new thing,” Edington said. As the convocation comes together to celebrate the cathedral’s ministry, it’s learning about how it can “adapt the inheritance of the ministry of cathedrals in the Episcopal Church, for our context, and our reality in Europe.”

During the March 26 service, the Litany of Thanksgiving for the cathedral and the convocation was read in five languages — German, French, Italian, Georgian, English — of the many spoken across the church in Europe.

Later in the service, Ann Dushane, senior warden, on behalf of the vestry read a proclamation affirming the 100th anniversary of the cathedral and clearly stating it is a “home for our bishop, and home away from home for all members of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.”

“The cathedral means quite a bit to me, it truly is my home, and it’s meant a lot to be able to welcome all of those from around the convocation to come and celebrate us and to put ourselves as the cathedral of the convocation,” Dushane told ENS following the service.

The cathedral, she said, is nearing the end of its search for a new dean. “We are moving forward and there’s a lot of energy here … God is going to put someone in front of us who’s going to allow us to build our future.”

The cathedral’s congregation has always been one of transition, with Americans who come and stay for “a year or two, five years, and then they leave” and then those expats, like herself, who have stayed and made a home, “and so it’s a mix all the time,” Ellen Hampton, an American expat, historian and the editor of the cathedral’s biannual magazine, Trinité, told ENS.

“Going forward, I think we want to become more European perhaps, I mean, we are the American Cathedral, and that identity is very strong, but that identity means welcoming everyone, you know, be a church of immigration that way, we’re a country of immigration,” Hampton said.

On Sunday morning, before the service, Andy and Carolyn Platt took their seats in a pew midway from the pulpit, at the end toward the aisle. The couple, married 53 years, met while both were teaching at the American School of Paris. They make their home in Acton, Massachusetts, and regularly return to Paris, and when they do, they worship at the cathedral. They made a special trip to hear the presiding bishop preach and to celebrate the cathedral’s birthday “Paris is dear to our hearts and the cathedral is central to that,” Carolyn Platt, told ENS, her husband nodding a yes over her shoulder. “To me, it [the cathedral] is a spiritual link to the love we have for each other and for Paris. It binds us.”

In contemplating the cathedral’s 100-year history, she said, “we’ve been part of it.”

The Platts, who also volunteer with the biweekly sandwich outreach ministry, sat alongside Bess Gonglewski, a longtime American expat who found her way to the cathedral through that ministry, where she also volunteers. For Gonglewski, who grew up in the Church of the Brethren, a 16th-century Anabaptist tradition with an emphasis on simplicity, at first worshipping in a grand, Gothic Revival cathedral with its stained-glass windows felt odd.

But then, as she began to know the cathedral community, participate in its adult education and formation programs, witness its welcoming message, including to LGBTQ+ people, and its invitation to open communion, “Jesus would have an open table,” she said. “Now the cathedral is my home in The Episcopal Church.”

The “open table” invitation extends to the sandwich ministry, coordinated by Kim Powell, an American from Connecticut who grew up in the AME Church and moved to Paris 30 years ago. Outside her work with the cathedral, where she is chair of mission and outreach and a vestry member, she works with refugees and homeless people living on the streets. The sandwich ministry, which operates with up to 200 volunteers, distribute sack lunches in front of the cathedral on Avenue George V, steps from the swank Four Seasons Hotel, and just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It serves people from all walks of life—migrants, homeless people, people who are food insecure and some who are older and live alone — with guests often becoming volunteers, Powell said.

And there are times, Powell said, during fashion week, when the cathedral’s nave is converted into a venue, and models preparing to walk the runway and volunteers working to distribute sack lunches are bumping into one another.

Following the Sunday Eucharist, after having spent time with Episcopalians from across the convocation, including 45-50 youth, Curry reflected on his visit.

“I do think it’s a pivotal moment for the cathedral and the convocation …. The churches in the convocation, of which the cathedral is the mother church, they’re feeding hungry folk. They are resettling refugees, caring for migrants and immigrants, often with some hardship and difficulty. They are resettling and caring for people fleeing Ukraine – this is a church on the move, they really are doing what Jesus asked us to do,” he said in an interview with ENS.

“I really want the whole Episcopal Church to hear about what’s going on in the Episcopal convocation, the Episcopal churches in Europe. They’re following Jesus of Nazareth for real … and they’re on the move, a movement is always on the move. They look like the Jesus movement to me, for real,” he said.

“I wanted to be here to celebrate. This is my kind of church, my kind of cathedral, my kind of convocation, my kind of Episcopal Church.”

-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and the managing editor of Episcopal News Service.