Words: Macy Sears
Photos: Old North Foundation
Built in 1723, the Old North Church is the oldest surviving church in Boston. Today, it serves as both an active Episcopal congregation and a National Historic Landmark. The church building is also one of the most visited stops along the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile run of 16 historic sites in downtown Boston.
The official name of the Old North Church is the Christ Church in the City of Boston. “Old North” was a traditional nickname given to whichever North End church was the oldest. The nickname of “Old North” still stands today as the Christ Church in the City of Boston remains the city’s oldest standing church.
William Price is the architect recognized for the Old North Church. The design inspiration stems from Christopher Wren, the British architect famous for rebuilding London after the Great Fire. In 1740, the Old North Church building added its notable steeple. Although the original steeple sustained hurricane damage, the Old North Church still stands roughly 175-feet tall.
One of by land, two if by sea.
The Old North Church rose to fame from historical events in April 1775.
On the night of April 18, 1775, church sexton Robert Newman and Vestryman Capt. John Pulling, Jr. climbed the eight-story Old North Church steeple and hung two lanterns. The lanterns signaled a warning to the Charlestown patriots that the British troops were heading towards Lexington and Concord. As instructed by Paul Revere, two lights indicated the British were traveling by sea and not land. The two lanterns hung for less than a minute while a third patriot, Thomas Bernard, kept watch. The Old North Church lanterns led to the famous saying, “One if by land, two if by sea.”
Upon the signal, Paul Revere and William Dawes rode horses nearly 10 miles into Lexington to notify John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the news. Along their ride, the two alerted dozens of other passing riders. After Lexington, Revere and Dawes traveled to Concord to inform Samuel Prescott. The British troops captured all three men; however, Dawes and Prescott escaped. The British later freed Paul Revere after undergoing questioning. His ambitious journey to spread the fateful message became known in history as Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride.
Following the signals atop the Old North Church, the American Revolution unfolded the next day. The Revolutionary War took place from April 19, 1775, until September 3, 1783. The Old North Church remained closed during the American Revolution.
The original steeple of the Old North Church was 191-feet tall. It served as the tallest in Boston until exceeded by the Park Street Church in 1809. Deacon Shem Drowne designed the weathervane at the top of the steeple, which is still present today. In 1804, the original steeple received damage from a hurricane. Charles Bulfinch designed its replacement, which held up until Hurricane Carol in 1954.
After its damage, Reverend Charles Russell Peck and the Lantern League held a national fundraising campaign to raise money for a replacement steeple. Contributions came in from around the country, and the new steeple went up that following year in 1955. The replacement was a replica of the original Old North Church steeple, but now with added steel support for withstanding future harsh weather. The church building with its steeple today stands roughly 175-feet tall.
The Bell Tower
The bell tower of the Old North Church houses eight change ringing bells. Change ringing bells sound in the order of a set mathematical pattern, also known as the “change.” The bells were cast in England by Abel Rudhall in 1744 and hung the following year. One of the eight bells has the inscription, “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America, A.R. 1744”. Paul Revere signed a contract to work as a bell ringer for the Old North Church in 1750. The Old North Church bells have since undergone restoration in 1894 and 1975.
Old North Church Interior
The interior of the Old North Church has several exceptional characteristics, and many of the original features still stand today.
White high-box pews furnished the inside of the Old North Church. The high-box design kept the cold out during the winter. It was also common to bring in coal-fired foot warmers and blankets to use within the box pews. Families originally paid for a high-box pew at the Old North Church. The closer sat to the altar, the more expensive the pew. Paying for a pew was a practice in place at the church until 1912. Upstairs balcony seating was available to those who could not afford a high-box pew in the Old North Church.
The traditional high-box pews are still found within the church building today. The original box pew doors feature a number and a metal plate with the name of its initial owner. Some of the pews in the Old North Church even have a panel with information about that owner.
Captain William Maxwell gifted the two elegant brass chandeliers hung within the church building. The chandeliers were first lit on Christmas Day, 1724. Two parishioners, Avery and Bennet, built the clock found at the rear of the Church in 1726. Located above the clock are four wooden figures of cherubim, installed back in 1746.
Renovations in 1989 uncovered a bricked-over window in the Old North Church. As the story goes, this is the window that Robert Newman used to hang the famous lanterns. He then later used the window to escape capture from the British militia. Updates to the Old North Church in 1815 included concealing the window. Its original glass and paint were intact upon its rediscovery in 1989.
A lantern gifted from President Gerald Ford on April 18, 1975, remains in the Newman Window today. President Ford gifted the lantern in celebration of the U.S Bicentennial. During the celebration, Ford lit the first two lanterns and then followed by lighting the third. The third lantern signifies a call to the nation and a hopeful Third Century. It still hangs today and serves as the Old North Church’s Third Lantern.
The Old North Church Gardens
Surrounding the Old North Church are beautiful gardens, large courtyards, and a war memorial honoring the American lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. The areas of green space serve as locations for prayer, reflection, and holy meditation.
Located on the north side of the Old North Church are the Washington Memorial Garden and the Washington Courtyard. Many visitors along the Freedom Trail utilize this space for reflection and relaxation. The Beacon Hill Garden Club maintained the garden care and sponsored a future redesign of the space. Upon its renovation and reconfiguration, it will become the Longfellow Garden.
Directly east of the Washington Courtyard is the Third Lantern Garden. This garden space is also located outside of the crypt. The area offers visitors plenty of shade, along with a pleasant fountain. In its recent renovation, the garden received a stronger set of stairs and a new brick wall.
The Bigelow Courtyard and St. Francis of Assisi Garden are on the southeast section of the church grounds. Several festivals take place within this area of the property, such as Harborfest and Colonialfest. The St. Francis Garden serves to honor the Italian immigrants of the Waldensian Reform movement, who originally occupied the Chapel of St. Francis. The original building of the Chapel of St. Francis is now used today as the Old North Church Gift Shop.
The 18th Century Garden sits between the St. Francis of Assisi Garden and the Clough House. Within the garden are 18th century inspired plants, rose arches, and shrubs. It is also another location on the church grounds that offers a space of shade for visitors.
The Old North Church Memorial Garden is a tribute to the fallen American soldiers from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The area has vastly evolved from its original design. Today, a nameless dog tag hangs for each American life lost by the conflicts from the greater war on terror. The memorial features thousands of tags, nearing as closely as possible to the actual death toll. The Memorial Garden at the Old North Church is a common space for visitors to pay their respects to the American serviceman.
Built in 1715, the Clough House is one of Boston’s oldest remaining brick buildings. Ebenezer Clough is the master bricklayer credited for building the house, and it served as a residence for him and his wife. Generations of the Clough family lived within the home until it transformed into apartments in 1806. The Old North Church purchased the Clough House in 1959. Today, the building serves as an area for the Colonial Chocolate Program and the Patriots Corner, a rotating gallery space.
The crypt at the Old North Church holds the remains of over 1,000 individuals. The underground site was open for church members to bury their dead between 1732 and 1860. A total of thirty-eight tombs hold the bodies of the deceased. The Strangers Tomb is the largest within the basement. It holds the remains of over forty-five children and adults who died of smallpox in 1813.
Using the Old North Church vault as a sacred burial ground was only available at a fee. To maximize its use and maintain the income, the practice of reopening the tombs to condense the bodies began. Not long after, the church discontinued the use of the crypt in fear of spreading infection. Today, public history tours of the Old North Church crypt are available for purchase.
The Old North Church in Boston originally began as an Anglican church. Reverend Timothy Cutler held the first church service on December 29, 1723. It was not until its reclassification in 1939 that the Old North Church transitioned into a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The current vicar is Reverend Dr. Matthew Cadwell, who took the lead in November 2020.
Current Day Service and Tours
Today, the Old North Church brings in over 150,000 visitors to the grounds each year. The location is one of the busiest stops along the Freedom Trail, and the Old North Church received certification as a Massachusetts Historic Landmark in 1966.
Tour tickets are available for general admission, guided tours, and parties of 12 or more. There is also a “behind the scenes” add-on tour option, including touring the Old North Church crypt and bell-ringing chamber. Following current federal and state guidelines, parts of the tour may be currently limited or closed to the public.
Worship services at the Old North Church currently operate virtually, with the hopes of the congregation resuming in-person service by late spring or early summer 2021. Virtual worship streams every Sunday at 11 AM.