More landmark churches charging admission fees during week while keeping worship free

By David Paulsen
Posted May 1, 2018
Old North Church interior

Visitors tour Boston’s Old North Church, which soon will begin charging tourists up to $8 a person for admission. Photo: Old North Church

[Episcopal News Service] Planning for a half million people a year to step foot in your church may seem like a rector’s foolish pipe dream. In reality, though, Old North Church is one of Boston’s most popular tourist destinations, and it doesn’t maintain itself.

“That’s a lot of wear and tear on the building,” the Rev. Stephen Ayers said. His church, while remaining free for all who come to worship and pray, soon will begin charging admission to most of its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. “We’ve managed as long as we can by cutting corners, but that’s not enough to keep the place going,” Ayers said.

Boston is a city steeped in Revolutionary War history, and Old North Church is one of its most treasured historical landmarks. Its stature stems from its pivotal role in Paul Revere’s famous ride on April 18, 1775, as the site of a poetic advance in lantern-based messaging – “One if by land, and two if by sea.”

Old North Church, 243 years later, is still home to a small but active Episcopal congregation. Its list of Christian ministries ranges from Bible studies to a feeding program, but historic preservation isn’t a central theme. “We want the congregation to have its own identity,” Ayers said, though there’s no denying that Old North Church’s connection to the past puts it in rare company. “It’s a pretty small group of churches that find themselves as being historical attractions as well.”

Old North Church tour

A guide leads tourists on a tour of Old North Church, which is both a popular historic site and an active Episcopal congregation. Photo: Old North Church

Landmark Episcopal churches make up an even smaller group, and some already have set up ticket counters for the paying public. Trinity Church in Boston, popular for its architecture, art and central location on Copley Square, has charged admission for more than a decade, except on Sunday mornings and other worship times.

“A lot goes into greeting the public and welcoming them,” said the Rev. Patrick C. Ward, associate rector at Trinity Boston. The costs of maintaining the building add up, and “the only people taking care of it are the people in the parish.”

In New York, Trinity Church Wall Street, a wealthy congregation founded in 1697, keeps its historic church, cemetery and nearby St. Paul’s Chapel open to the public for free, while the Cathedral of St. John the Divine created a $10 admission fee in September 2017. It had promoted a suggested donation for decades and also charges for guided tours of the 125-year-old building, one of the world’s largest cathedrals.

“We do not, nor will ever, require a fee from anyone coming here for private prayer, attending a worship service or seeking respite or sanctuary,” Isadora Wilkenfeld, St. John the Divine’s programming and communications manager, said in an email. “However, we’ve always relied on the contributions of visitors, supporters and the wider community as a major source of revenue.”

St. John the Divine, through a long period of research and discussion, found that an admission fee was in line with the policies at other cathedrals in the United States and Europe, including Washington National Cathedral, which began charging tourists and sightseers $12 per person in 2014.

If you cringe at the notion of making anyone pay to enter a house of worship, consider what it takes for that small group of landmark churches to invite the public inside on days of the week when many other churches around the country are closed to the public.

“We wouldn’t be able to keep our doors open on a daily basis if it weren’t for people paying a nominal fee,” said Patricia Hurley, Trinity Boston’s director of communications. The church’s $7 fee helps cover the estimated $35,000 a week it costs to keep the lights on and staff the building, including security.

The congregation is much larger than Old North Church – about 750 people attend the five Sunday services at Trinity – and though lacking Old North’s historical pedigree, it still draws up to 100,000 visitors a year. Trinity is known as one of the most significant buildings in the country because it represents the birth of a now commonplace architectural style, Richardsonian Romanesque, pioneered by H. H. Richardson.

“It’s not merely about surface prettiness. Beauty draws us out of ourselves,” Ward said, noting the connection between art and spirituality. “People coming into it from all faiths, or no faith, will say things to me like, ‘I feel embraced by this building.’”

And if faith has called someone to a church, whether the building is historic or not, church leaders are committed to removing financial barriers to entry.

“Sundays and worship services are always free, as is private prayer,” said Kevin Eckstrom, communications officer at Washington National Cathedral. “If someone comes to the front desk and says they want to light a candle or say a prayer, they can come in.”

National Cathedral draws about 275,000 visitors a year, typically attracted by its historical connection to the nation’s capital, its Gothic architecture and its spiritual significance as “a place where people can encounter the sacred in a very secular city,” Eckstrom said.

It costs an estimated $40,000 a day to keep the building open and running. After an initial adjustment period, Eckstrom said, visitors have grown accustomed to paying the admission fee, which includes a half-hour, docent-led tour of the facility.

“Part of our mission is to open the space to whoever wants to come in and hopefully have a transcendent experience that you would not get in any other place in the nation’s capital,” he said.

And whether it’s a quarter million people visiting National Cathedral or a half million people visiting Old North Church, those kinds of numbers are “great problem to have,” he said.

Old North steeple

Old North Church is one of the most popular tourist stops in Boston because of the two lanterns hung in its town signaling that British were advancing by sea on April 18, 1775. Photo: Old North Church

Old North Church plans to launch its new fee policy as soon as its ticket booths arrive, possibly this month.

“We’ve done a good bit of local PR about it. Most of the response has been good,” said Ayers, whose congregation typically numbers 80 to 90 people at Old North’s two Sunday services.

The church previously suggested donations of $3, though that revenue typically averaged only $1 per visitor, Ayres said. Adult visitors now will pay $8, with discounts for military members, seniors and students. Kids under 5 will still get in free, as will anyone who lives in Boston.

The historic site is set up as a separate nonprofit organization, with support from the Episcopal congregation, and during the height of the summer tourist season, Old North Church has about 50 people on its staff catering to visitors. Many of them are graduate students studying history who spend the season as educators or first-person interpreters dressed in Colonial costumes.

Old North Church prides itself on offering a comprehensive experience detailing Colonial life, Revolutionary War history and even 18th-century chocolate making. “It’s not just come and recite ‘one if by land and two if by sea’ and leave,” Ayers said. “Freedom was not just kicking the British out of North America.”

If there has been any objection to the new fee, it’s come from the tourism companies that now will have to pay to stop at Old North Church on their bus tours and cruises. Ayers doesn’t expect them to change course. Old North conducted a study that concluded an admission fee would not dramatically decrease the number of annual visits.

If you only have time for a few stops while visiting Boston, “you’re going to pick the ones on your bucket list,” he said. “The Old North is on everybody’s bucket list.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at

Comments (10)

  1. mike geibel says:

    Charging a fee to tourists or looky-loo’s is a good idea, and pastors should not be hesitant to do so. On my recent trips to Paris and to London, highlights included visits to Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre Coeur Basilica—Montmartre, and Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral in Paris; St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abby in London, and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The main attraction churches had entrance fees much higher than the amounts referenced in the article, and self-guided audio tours in many languages as well.

    My favorite was St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where we participated in the noon Eucharist, even though surrounded by respectful tourists, and even had lunch with the visiting Priest who was originally from Spain, and whose name I am embarrassed to say I don’t remember. There were many more historical and architectural churches we visited, many not official tourist attractions, and which only requested a “donation” when visiting. Some Episcopal Churches in the U.S. have the historical or architectural allure even though they lack the centuries old attraction of churches in London and Europe where cathedrals and churches are merely a shell of their former congregations and have become relics of a rich cultural and spiritual heritage, many having slipped into the past with the de-Christianization of Europe.

  2. PJ Cabbiness says:

    Admission fees for visitors and tourists are an economic necessity at this time. The amounts described in the article are a bargain considering the beauty and history of these churches.

  3. Roberta Julio says:

    I have tried to attend morning prayer, evening prayer, and daily Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and upon trying to enter, I am asked to pay an admission fee each time. I have given up trying to attend. I’m confused by the statement of the St. John’s here. They do charge during worship services.

  4. mike geibel says:

    Dear Ms. Cummings:
    No offense was intended. Perhaps you misunderstood my use of the term which actually, I borrowed from an article on the internet describing the general loss of attendance at Churches across Europe.

    The French Revolution resulted in the demise or destruction of many beautiful Catholic Churches in France. Do your own research if you disagree with the declining attendance. We visited several churches, including one in Paris which was the burial site of Admiral DeGrasse who commanded the French Fleet that surrounded Charleston and aided in the success of the American Revolution. No one else was there except the Priest.

    The Anglican churches in London have been witness to significant losses in membership and attendance. Yes, many do conduct services, but it is generally known that the rise of secularism has left many famous and historical churches with very small attendance and many survive on the money generated by tourism, especially given the age of the buildings and costs of upkeep.

    That does not mean that interdenominational and non-traditional churches are not on the rise in Europe just like in the U.S. Campus Crusade is active in China, with the government’s permission. It is well documented that “liberal” churches are declining in membership, including the Anglican Church in England and the TEC, for reasons that have been evident in the Parochial Reports and comments to various ENS articles.

  5. mike geibel says:

    As a followup to my last post, here are some articles on Christianity in Europe that are worth reading:

    Article: Religious Blindness—And its Consequences—For Europe

    “The dramatic loss of Christian faith in Europe is historically unprecedented. While some countries are slightly better off than others, the continent as a whole can no longer be described as a Christian civilization. . . To be sure, the loss of faith among these peoples and the de-Christianization of their cultures and public life had its origins long before the First World War: back in the Enlightenment and the total secularization of the European states and public life, beginning with the French Revolution and then expanding throughout Europe.

    Article: The De-Christianization of Europe

    “That said, a key difference today is that, while states favored religious belief in the past, today governments have fled from any meaningful identification with Christianity (even where “Christian” is part of a political party’s name). Enforced secularization at the hand of bureaucrats educated to leftist biases has done much to discredit religion in Europe.”

    Article: The De-Christianization of Europe, and America Is Next

    “Europe’s march towards a post-Christian society has been starkly illustrated by research showing a majority of young people in a dozen countries do not follow a religion.”

    Article: Europe No Longer Center of Christian Faith

    “Faith, at least Christian faith, no longer appeals to chic Europeans who have stopped believing in God or attending religious services. In some cases, this superficial faith was always a thin veneer hidden by state religions. As one example, those born in Sweden before 2000 were, by operation of law, Evangelical Christian members of the Church of Sweden. Yet socialist Sweden was among the most irreligious places on the planet. Nations such as Denmark, Norway, Scotland, and England still have “state” religions and the nominal affiliates of those state churches may have no serious religious views at all. This de-Christianization of Europe has been going on for many decades, and 80 years ago writers were noting that in nations such as France and Germany very few people really believed in Christianity.”

  6. May Marsh says:

    St. John’s does charge during worship services. You can only get in without a fee if you know to tell them, when they ask for money, that you are there for a worship service or to pray. If there are signs explain this, I could not find them. I went on vacation there, intentionally planning to go and stop by a service, and only heard this explanation three weeks later after I was already home in Seattle. Unfortunately, when I was there, I only knew to say I am here to visit the Church. I could see the service going on, but I was still asked for the money. I wish that I had known their catchphrase. To anyone here who wishes to visit, be sure to clearly articulate their phrase – “I am here to pray or worship,” – or you will be charged a fee every time you go to a service.

    1. David Paulsen says:

      St. John the Divine has said it does not intend to charge people who go to the cathedral for worship services, but we have asked them to clarify in greater detail how they carry out this policy to ensure those who wish to worship are not made to pay.

  7. Joe Prasad says:

    Mike – thanks for providing links to the articles on De-Christianization. The emphasis in all the articles has been on secularization being the root cause of De-Christianization of Europe. I view this differently. Europeans being more educated, it was only natural that they question the validity of all that the Church taught and practiced. At one end, the Church spoke of the Love of Jesus and preached the Gospel but then on the other hand, justified slavery, colonialism, exploited colonized nations, wrought havoc in Africa, decimated the Native Indians, practiced anti-Semitism, etc. etc. The educated, the thoughtful and those with moral sense were right to look beyond the Church to breathe life into the society. It is quite surprising that the same Western people who shun Church seems to be more interested in spirituality and leading a godly life minus the Church.
    If Islam becomes a major force in Europe / US, it is the West to blame for this situation. For hundred of years, the Western nations have created situations in Islamic world favorable to themselves disregarding the hopes and aspirations of the average person. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Islamic ideology asks its adherents to triumph at whatever the cost may be. They are not like the Hindus or the Buddhists who tend to get run over or are quite willing to integrate / assimilate.

    Given the increasing cost of operating any building, it is only right for landmark churches to charge a reasonable fee.

  8. mike geibel says:

    Dear Mr. Prasad:
    The term “secularization” does not necessarily equate with atheism or with ideological condemnation against the perceived sins of past generations. Many Americans continue to be spiritual and identify as Christians, but do not identify as “Episcopalians” or Anglicans or Baptists, etc. Some older, conservative Christians are abandoning the mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church, because their Bishops and clergy have become enraptured by partisan politics and external activism. Liberal progressive churches display zero tolerance for anybody they perceive to be intolerant, which generally includes anyone who disagrees with the Church’s preferred liberal candidate or social justice, eco-justice or gender-justice causes. The gap is not being filled by young persons with families, who apparently are not looking for what the TEC is offering and choose to attend more interdenominational churches which are less divisive.

    Comments in response to this article showed almost no negative reactions to charging admission to tour through historical Episcopal Churches, and the fee is rationalized as necessary to address the “wear” and “tear” on the facilities. By comparison, a similar ENS article in 2013 resulted in 46 comments, mostly by clergy and mostly very negative towards charging an admission fee to the Washington National Cathedral. Five short years later, it appears that the economic realities of an unrelenting decline in membership has made the idea of charging an admission fee more theologically palatable.

  9. Joe Prasad says:

    Mike – thanks for clarifying the term “secularization”. Not only Christianity but other religions are facing similar problems of younger generation not attending places of worship but participating in “spiritual” events. Perhaps this is the new trend.
    I don’t know what to say about groups that display zero tolerance. Makes it difficult for people to work together especially when those involved have utter disregard or flawed understanding of history.

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