Holy Trinity was built in 1789 by Philadelphia's German Catholic community. It was the first parish church in the United States established specifically to serve a national group.
The religious turmoil and economic hardships of war-torn Germany had brought German immigrants to Pennsylvania since its founding by William Penn in 1682. By the 1780s they accounted for more than half the Catholic population of the city. In 1788 their request to build a separate church and school where they could pray and teach in their native language received the approval of Bishop John Carroll, the Prefect Apostolic for the Catholic Church in the United States.
In 1797 the church established America's first Catholic orphanage to care for the many children left homeless by the deadly yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s.
Today the church appears almost exactly as it did in 1789. The front of the church is placed perpendicular to Spruce Street so that the altar faces east, a custom of early Catholic churches in America. Holy Trinity's brickwork is one of the city's finest examples of Flemish bond with red stretcher bricks alternating with glazed black headers.
In recent years the church has no longer been at the center of a distinct German Catholic population and is combined, as in its historic roots with Old St. Mary's at Fourth Street above Spruce.
The churchyard inspired the final scene of H.W. Longfellow's poem, Evangeline.
Side by side, in their nameless graves,
the lovers are sleeping.
Under the humble walls of the little
In the heart of the city they lie,
Unknown and unnoticed.
The poem was based on the real tragedy of the Acadians, who were exiled from Nova Scotia by the British as punishment for their loyalty to France during the French and Indian War (1754-63). More than 450 Acadians found refuge in Philadelphia.