The interior of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on North Warren Street is dark and cool on a sunny summer day. Five large stained glass windows glow along one wall lining the nave, but my eyes are drawn immediately to one in particular, with deep saturated hues and a muscular Art Nouveau composition.
I immediately know this is the one I came to see, the window created by the famed glass studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany. As if reading my mind, Tom Musick, a member of and administrator at St. Michael’s Trenton, says: “It’s very different from the other windows, and very Tiffany.”
It is very Tiffany, and very beautiful.
Over the years, residing in Trenton, I have on occasion heard word and read brief mentions of a Tiffany window quietly residing in a historic church in downtown Trenton. Now here I am in front of it.
Perhaps 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide, the St. Michael’s Tiffany window is composed in three parts. Two tall thin peaked window panels sit next to each other and depict an arcadian landscape scene, with a stony brook running through flowered meadows and blue mountains in the distance. A large cross is situated on the left, a grapevine twined around it. The vine, full of luscious glass grape clusters, winds up and around both window panels, framing the bucolic scene. Above the two peaked windows is a third round glass aperture depicting a descending dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit.
Trenton is full of hidden artistic gems, contemporary and historic. Few match this one, in elusiveness and sumptuous beauty.
St. Michael’s, where the window resides, is a stone’s throw from the street life of downtown Trenton but it is a world away. The church is enveloped in history. Founded in 1703, and located on King Street (present day Warren) since 1748, it is one of the oldest churches in Trenton, or New Jersey for that matter. The American Revolution unfolded literally outside its front door. During the Battle of Trenton the Hessians set up artillery in its churchyard.
The current building frontage, dating to 1843, is a fairly rare instance of castellated Gothic Revival church architecture. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the notables buried in the churchyard are David Brearley, a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, and Pauline Bonaparte, infant child of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.
Understaffed and with a shrinking congregation, the doors of St. Michael’s are often locked, so getting access to the church interior and its Tiffany window is difficult. The only sure way to get in is to first attend one of the two weekly services held at the church, on Sunday and Wednesday. Even if you are not religious it is a small price to pay to gain access to this amazing piece of art.
Musick tells me that the story of how a Tiffany window came to be commissioned and installed at St. Michael’s is something of a mystery. The main clue is a commemoration right on the window glass itself, but even this is not straightforward as it is spread across two window panels. My best guess is to read: “In Loving Memory of Matilda M. Vroom Charlotte D. Gouverneur R. and Margaret G. Vroom 1906.”
Musick points out another window across the nave that is thought to also be by Tiffany. There is no landscape scene, only patterned, more generic panes lacking the deep glowing colors of the first window. It is a beautiful window but nothing like the Vroom window.
Back home I conduct some basic online genealogical research, hoping to clear up the Vroom commemoration mystery.
The Vrooms were apparently a prominent legal and political family in Trenton in the 1800s. Peter D. Vroom was a U.S. Congressman and Governor of New Jersey in the 1830s. He died in 1873, and his wife Matilda M. Vroom died in 1879 “from a cold contracted while visiting friends” in Trenton, according to a contemporary newspaper account. They had a son, Garret Dorset Wall Vroom, who was mayor of Trenton from 1881 to 1884, and died in 1914. Garret Vroom married Charlotte Dickinson, and they had four children, three of whom died young: Charlotte Vroom, Gouverneur Rutgers Vroom, and Margaret Gobert Vroom.”
A grieving father and former Trenton mayor who commissioned a beautiful work of religious art from the great Tiffany in memory of his mother and the tragic early deaths of his children? Or his wife, his children and his mother?
The story of the Vroom family’s loss may be obscured by the mists of time, but it has bequeathed on St. Michael’s Church and Trenton a work of art of lasting beauty and majesty.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is located at 140 North Warren Street in Trenton. Sunday Eucharist is held at 10:15 a.m. and Wednesday Healing Service at 12:10 p.m. Phone: 609-392-8086. Website: www.stmichaelstrenton.com.