Old North Church reclaims Colonial-era chandelier
OTIS – The spare but beautiful interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is empty and shuttered now, the victim of declining attendance in a sparsely populated dot of Western Massachusetts.
But above its worn pews Monday morning hung a five-candle chandelier that Paul Revere would have seen when he walked into the Old North Church, a chandelier that would have been suspended there on the night of his famous ride to Lexington.
On Monday, the chandelier was packed up and shipped home, nearly three centuries since a Boston privateer, a pillar of the Old North congregation, seized it from a French ship bound for Quebec and presented it to his church.
Old North later donated the chandelier to St. Paul’s, and there it had remained since 1830 as a glittering object of beauty and fascination until Episcopal officials decided to close the country chapel this summer.
“It was just a small summer community, and they ran out of financial and human resources,” said Steven Abdow, canon for mission resources of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.
St. Paul’s loss will become a plus for the Old North, officially called Christ Church, which is planning for a major restoration to coincide with its 300th anniversary in 2023. The chandelier will be reinstalled somewhere on the North End campus.
“This is a nice part of our history,” the Reverend Stephen T. Ayres, vicar of Old North, said as he watched the chandelier being dismantled, piece by glimmering piece, and packed for the 120-mile trek along the Massachusetts Turnpike to Boston.
The trip capped a small expedition by Episcopal officials, conservators, a carpenter, and mover, who all descended Monday on St. Paul’s to remove the chandelier, an old pulpit, and a prayer desk.
Along the way, the church’s balky wooden door needed to be shoved open, carpeting was ripped up, and paint samples taken as brilliant sunshine poured through arched windows onto spartan pews and plain white walls.
Ayres, dressed in a clerical collar, made no apologies that the chandelier came from a privateer — ostensibly, a pirate with a government license to plunder — in 1746.
The generous privateer was Thomas Gruchy, captain of the “Queen of Hungary” and junior warden at Old North, who also gave the church four carved angels he had seized from the French merchant vessel. The angels adorn the Old North to this day.
“Privateers were perfectly legal back then. It’s how the British made war against the nasty French,” Ayres said with a smile. “Nobody would have thought twice about having a privateer as a junior warden. It’s part of our lore.”
A tunnel discovered near Gruchy’s property in the North End, at the corner of Salem and Charter streets, indicated he probably was a smuggler, as well.
The pulpit and prayer desk returning to Boston were initially believed to have come to Otis with the glass chandelier in 1830. A former Sunday school superintendent at Old North, who had created St. Paul’s as a mission church, asked for the items, which had been discarded in the Old North churchyard.
The pulpit was long thought to have been Old North’s original one. However, a few pinpricks of paint taken Monday separated fiction from what are likely the facts.
The pulpit and prayer desk probably do not come from Old North, conservator Brian Powell said, and might not date to Revolutionary times at all.
Powell, who examined the samples with a microscope hung around his neck, said they lack the layering of paint that would be consistent with the Old North of Revere’s time.
Although more testing will be done, the preliminary results were a slight disappointment for Ayres.
Still, he said, “solving an old mystery is always a good thing. It’ll probably be harder on the members here who were thinking for 200 years that they had our old pulpit.”
The pulpit and prayer desk were scheduled to be taken to the National Park Service in Charlestown, where they will undergo detailed paint analysis to more precisely determine their age.
Whatever that study shows, the church will benefit from knowing the truth.
“These have come out of the blue to us,” the vicar said. “I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but I know that I want them.”
As for St. Paul’s, an era has ended. The chapel was founded to spread the Gospel in what one history of the church called “the wilderness frontier in the hills of Western Massachusetts.”
Now, the small building is empty. Paint peels off the walls, and cushions in the pews are frayed. A musty smell fills the air.
Abdow, the diocesan official, said the church members are happy that the items will receive an appreciative home in Boston.
“It’s appropriate for it to be more of a museum environment,” Abdow said. “From a theological perspective, we feel that God is up to something new. It’s not about buildings; it’s about people.”