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James A. Trimble Jr., former rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, dies at 89

Rev. Trimble was chaplain at Episcopal Academy for 15 years. While there, he challenged the school to admit minority students and encouraged young people to follow their beliefs.

James A. Trimble Jr.
James A. Trimble Jr.Read moreCourtesy of the Trimble Family

The Rev. James Armstrong Trimble Jr., 89, of Philadelphia, former rector of Christ Church in Old City, died Sunday, Sept. 6, of renal failure while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Born in East Falls to Ella and James A. Trimble, he spent four decades as a clergyman in the Philadelphia area, 25 years as a minister at various churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and 15 as a chaplain and teacher at Episcopal Academy.

He graduated from Central High School, and in 1953 earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but a Penn chaplain got him interested in the church, he said in a 2014 interview for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania Oral History Project.

He graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1956 and was ordained to the priesthood the following year.

His first assignment was as an associate minister at Grace Church, Mount Airy. He left to establish the Church of the Redemption in Southampton in 1958. It didn’t yet have a church building, so the early services had to be held where space was available.

“We alternated between the firehouse and the Republican Club,” he said with a laugh. “The only problem with the firehouse is that sometimes they would have a fire in the middle of a midweek service, which was interesting.”

After guiding the church through rapid growth, Rev. Trimble joined Episcopal Academy as chaplain in 1963.

“The chaplain’s position was interesting, because it was also the chairman of the department of religion and philosophy,” he said. “So I taught, and coached the junior varsity baseball team.”

Rev. Trimble required all students to attend daily chapel, but he arranged for Jewish pupils to opt out of participating in the service.

“It seems to me that you give these kids the option of participating verbally, if they want to," he said. “And if they don’t want to, they don’t get scolded.”

While at Episcopal, he challenged the school to admit minority students. He encouraged young people to follow their beliefs.

Starting in 1978, Rev. Trimble became the 18th rector of Christ Church, the founding church of the Episcopal denomination in America. The church served as a parish and historic site, roles that often conflicted.

“There are seven signers of the Declaration of Independence buried at Christ Church, and five signers of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “And all of these patriotic societies thought that they could come in any time they wanted. I said, ‘You can’t do that. We’re going to have to make up a calendar.’”

During his two decades as rector, Christ Church celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding.

He built the congregation by opening the church to what was then an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.

“We developed some community things for people to use,” he said. “We had a gym, a basketball court, and we had kids in from the neighborhood — that was kind of neat. We also called on new people in Society Hill, and we got them to come to Christ Church.”

After retiring in 1998, Rev. Trimble was interim pastor for the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator, West Philadelphia, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill.

He served as president of the standing committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and on the boards of Episcopal Community Services, Episcopal Hospital, and the National Museum of Jewish History.

He also worked with the Reinvestment Fund to raise $5 million from Episcopal parishes for investment in affordable housing.

He served for 51 years as the July rector at St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea in Winter Harbor, Maine.

Known for his sharp mind and love of history, he enjoyed participating in a community garden, reading, watching the Phillies and Eagles, and flying kites.

In 1956, he married Nadine Canfield. After she died, he married Gail Hutchison in 1996.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Martin; stepdaughters Suzanne and Sarah Biemiller; and five grandchildren. Daughter Emile and son Philip died earlier.

Interment will be private. A celebration of life will be held in 2021 once health conditions permit.

Memorial donations may be made to the Christ Church Preservation Trust via