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After staying shuttered during the pandemic, Old North Church reopens in time for historic weekend

Director of Education Catherine Matthews pointed out a cherub to Teddy DeWitt at the Old North Church in Boston on Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Visitors were welcomed back to Old North Church on Saturday for the first time since the start of the pandemic — and a day before the 246th anniversary of Paul Revere’s midnight ride.

“It’s amazing to see people in the church again,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of the Old North Church and Historic Site. “What strikes me is how emotional it is for people, especially people who didn’t realize [before this Patriots Day weekend] that this was going to be the day we reopen.”

On April 18, 1775, Revere rode through the countryside to warn Colonists of British soldiers approaching Lexington and Concord, where the first battles of the American Revolution would break out the next day.

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Revere told two men to light lanterns in the tower of Old North Church to signal what route the British would take — instructions that would be immortalized as “one if by land, two if by sea,” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Timothy Barney and Crystal Adeloye toured the Old North Church on Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“For so many people, [the church] serves as an icon of the Revolution, independence, and what people would say is the American spirit,” Stewart said. “I think this is a time where we can all use a little inspiration and a reminder that we as individuals really have the power to affect change.”

Old North Church is one of the first sites along the Freedom Trail to reopen since shutting down in March 2020. The church lost more than $1.1 million in operating revenue last year and had to lay off most of its staff, Stewart said, but she is hopeful for what the spring and summer will bring.

“Vaccination rates are coming up and we’re seeing people out in the neighborhood,” she said. “At this point we’re just looking forward.”

Only 25 people are allowed in the church at a time on limited dates in April, but the site will likely be open more regularly in the coming months, according to the church’s website.

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All tours are self guided, with visitors able to learn about the church’s history from signs around the site and laminated information sheets that are sanitized after each use. Visitors can view the staircase leading to the steeple where the lanterns were lit on the night of Revere’s ride, the 17th-century angels that surround the church’s 1759 organ, and other historical features while touring the building.

The church will hold a virtual lantern lighting ceremony Sunday evening to commemorate Revere’s ride. The event will feature music, a reenactment of the lantern lighting at the church, remarks from Governor Charlie Baker, a reading of Longfellow’s poem, and a ceremony for 2021 Lantern Award recipient Dave McGillivray, the longtime director of the Boston Marathon.

“I always said I wanted to be a Red Sox player or a Patriot growing up, and although I wasn’t a Patriot in the sense of athletics, I would like to think over the course of my life I’ve sort of acted as a patriot in trying to do community work,” McGillivray said. “To be recognized in that is somewhat overwhelming.”

Visitors tour the Old North Church in the North End neighborhood of Boston, on April 17, 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

McGillivray ran across the United States in 1978 to raise awareness for childhood cancer and the Jimmy Fund. During his trip, he passed through his hometown of Medford, Mass., one of the places Revere traveled through on his ride two centuries before.

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“He was carrying a message of awareness, obviously, that the British were coming. ... In my journey across America, I was carrying a message about childhood cancer,” McGillivray said. “There’s synergy here and there’s meaning, and I’m really proud and honored to be receiving this award.”

For more information about tours and Sunday’s event, visit the Old North Church’s website.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.