By Christine Havens
Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s highly acclaimed blockbuster, is an intense experience, a grand portrayal of the Manhattan Project’s leader. When the movie ends, it might be easy think that’s where the story ends, to let the notoriety of the work and its consequences be the last word. But of course, it’s not. Los Alamos continues as a community and the Los Alamos National Laboratory has greatly expanded its role.
As a part of that community, Trinity on the Hill, the only Episcopal parish on the mesa, has a number of ties to the movie and to the real events and people that the movie depicts. The church’s foundations go back to the Manhattan Project, many parishioners work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and at least two of them worked as extras on the film. They’re also concerned with how the film is influencing perception of the people and events, both past and present.
According to a parish histories written in 1954 and 2004, “Trinity on the Hill had its beginning in the work of the Rev. C.J. Kinsolving III … and of Army Chaplain Matthew H. Imre,” both of whom “conducted services for the small group of Episcopalians employed on the Project.” They initially worshiped in what was called the “Big House,” which was a part of the Los Alamos Ranch School. Kinsolving later served as Bishop of New Mexico and Southwest Texas (now the Diocese of the Rio Grande) from 1956 to 1972.
In 1949, a steering commission chose the parish’s name. The Rev. Mary Ann Hill, rector of Trinity since May, adds that Norris Bradbury, Oppenheimer’s successor, helped establish the parish.
Did the church have any connection with Trinity as the test codename? When Hill suggested that possibility, “another priest who has lived here a long time took offense.” Hill added that the “church is also on Trinity Drive, so that may be part of how it got its name, but of course I’m sure the road did get its name from the test site.”
Trinity draws on the gifts of its members to form a strong Christian community whose mission is, as Hill stressed, “to be a force for good.” Trinity’s chapel stays open overnight for folks who need temporary shelter, and the building is often used by the larger community. Los Alamos is a company town — 70 to 80 percent of the population works for the lab, and Hill loves the nerdy aspect of her congregation (her license plate is Luke Skywalker’s call sign, Red 5). She said the church has “a high degree of Ph.D.s,” which, among other things, makes for interesting comments on her sermons; as academics, they want to explore her sources.
One such parishioner is Jeffrey Favorite, who is a nuclear engineer. He has been at the lab for 25 years now; his work involves radiation transport applications, which he explains as studying gamma rays and neutrons to learn the effects of radiation. Favorite is a longtime member of Trinity on the Hill, having joined soon after his arrival in Los Alamos.
He’s served in many leadership roles, including vestry member, finance committee chair, treasurer, Sunday school teacher, and more. He says that not only is he a member of the town’s local theater (which originated during the Manhattan Project) but also a professional dramatic storyteller, presenting the Gospel of Mark for audiences regularly.
So it seems only natural that Favorite responded to the second Oppenheimer casting call for extras — “Everybody responded.” He was hired as an extra for the Senate confirmation hearings scenes, in which Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., is being considered as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. The enthusiasm in his voice, as he spoke of his time on the set in March 2022, was palpable and contagious.
His official role was “Senate Observer.” He can be seen on screen as a group of men standing in the background behind a seated Strauss. He’s also on screen as a photographer. One of the highlights, Favorite says, was sitting next to Alden Ehrenreich for some of the shots, though those ended up being cut. He noted that the actor was reading Anna Karenina while on the set.
One of the points the nuclear engineer stressed is that “everyone in town has some connection to the movie, so I’m not unique in this at all — it’s a community thing.” When he and his family watch, “it’s not just me we are looking for; it’s many of our friends.”
John Singleton is a British scientist who “came to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s Los Alamos campus for a change [getting back to hands-on science] and [unexpectedly] stayed.” During his time at Trinity, he directed and accompanied the youth and Evensong choirs, among other ministries.
Singleton tells intriguing stories of his conversations with the “old ones,” as he calls them, folks who lived on the hill as part of the original Manhattan Project community. One of his several disappointments is that Nolan’s film doesn’t do justice to the reality of life there — the “frenetic” pace at which they all worked, the crowded conditions, and the partying that went on. Singleton said one of the old ones told him it reminded him of Tolkien’s Mordor at times.
Hill, Favorite, and Singleton all emphasized the sense of judgment inherent in Oppenheimer. Their consensus is that the issue of nuclear weapons is more complicated than as expressed in the movie. Hill says that while she would love for all such weapons to be destroyed, she holds a pragmatic view that they are part of our broken world, keeping it safe from massive aggression.
Singleton asks viewers not to be too hasty to criticize the scientists who were “driven by an aspect of revenge” in their race to make the bomb, who wanted to see “Berlin as a pool of molten rock with Hitler in the middle.” Many of them lost family members in Nazi concentration camps, and that desire helped allay their pain.
All three pointed out the current work happening at the lab, which is devoted to nonproliferation of more weapons, to “stockpile stewardship” (making sure that what does exist is safe); and to other projects that lead toward more sustainable energy sources and ways of living. John and his team won an R&D award last year for work on communications antennas that would assist internet access in rural places.
Oppenheimer is a cultural phenomenon that will, for a while longer, generate conversations about the development and use of nuclear weapons and about the complicated man who led the work in the United States. Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church, however, will carry on the stories of those, past and present, who are tied to the Los Alamos community, continuing in their mission to be a force for good.