Trinity Hall is commonly believed to have started as a military school.
“Trinity Hall, when you look at a lot of the popular commentaries that survive, basically, it’s written as Trinity Hall Military Academy,” said historian Samuel J. Richards, who is from Bentleyville, but now teaches at Shanghai American School, in the Chinese city. “People say very little about it beyond that.”
In an article that will appear in the spring issue of Pennsylvania History, Pennsylvania Historical Association’s academic journal, Richards exhumes the mostly forgotten history to piece together a study of the institution, which operated from 1879 to 1906 on land that’s now home to Trinity Area High School. The district uses some of the old school for offices, and maintains a museum dedicated to its history.
District transportation and facilities director Aaron Scott is among the people Richards credits with helping him in his research.
Richards writes that the boys school never actually used the name Trinity Hall Military Academy for itself. It did have uniforms, drill and other elements of military-style education for most of its lifespan.
“But actually what was going on there was much richer than what people’s popular conception of what a military school is,” Richards said.
The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, which included Trinity church in Washington, was new at the time of the school’s founding. Bishop John Barrett Kerfoot had been the first diocesan bishop to be consecrated just 13 years earlier.
Richards said the school followed the model pioneered by William Augustus Muhlenberg, an Episcopal priest and educator whose ideas influenced Kerfoot.
“(Muhlenberg) had a vision of a religious school that would be sectarian, and would train boys not only to be intellectual and curious, but also good moral people,” Richards said. “And for him, that meant he needed a specific sectarian view because he thought that a generic school wouldn’t be able to teach the good moral character, which for him involved not only the way people behaved, but also their belief in Christianity.”
That vision included using tuition from wealthier families to help pay for the 10% of the student body which was to come from poorer families. Richards said he doesn’t know if that happened at Trinity, since he hasn’t had time to look at the individual students.
Newspaper ads put the cost of attendance at $400 tuition “plus sundry fees,” Richards writes.
In the years following Kerfoot’s death in 1881, the school began to show signs of Muscular Christianity, whose adherents believed boys’ moral and intellectual character were connected to physical vigor and athleticism – a world view that was shared by the founders of the Olympics and YMCA.
In the early 1880s, the region’s wealthier Anglo-Saxons were threatened by growing numbers of laborers who emigrated from Central and Southern Europe. Bigotry against the new arrivals was pervasive enough that newspaper accounts them as “hunkies,” a common slur at the time. Established families grew anxious that their own sons would turn out to be “sissies” by comparison, Richards said.
“So the school is trying to deal with the athletic end of it, the moral behavior end of it, and then the intellectual end of it. It’s actually trying to bring together all those things,” Richards added, “But I think Trinity Hall is unique in bringing together the old Muhlenberg model and elements of Muscular Christianity.”
The military instruction was a way of instilling discipline – part of a broader outlook that also involved grading students for their behavior. Still, Richards said Muhlenberg’s documented opposition to corporeal punishment to assert he was ahead of his time in that regard.
“I think today we would see him as someone who thought that paddling should not exist in school,” Richards said. “In the 1800s, that’s pretty crazy when you think that Pennsylvania banned paddling in schools only recently.”