Presiding bishop preaches at Boston’s Old North Church for 300th anniversary celebration

By Tracy Sukraw
Posted Apr 19, 2023

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry greets Lexington Minutemen re-enactors following the 300th Anniversary Lantern Service at Old North Church in Boston April 16. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh

[Diocese of Massachusetts] Last weekend, with celebrations around the Patriots’ Day holiday in full swing in Boston and tens of thousands of visitors in town on the eve of the Boston Marathon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry traveled to Old North Church to help celebrate the historic congregation’s 300th year.

Curry preached rousing “God is love!” messages at two April 16 services that were as much about reckoning and recommitment as they were remembrance, and which sought to shine new light on the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

While in town, Curry also visited the Epiphany School, which is celebrating its 25th year, and spent the morning April 15 with youth from across the diocese at St. Cyprian’s Church, where he blessed newly refurbished panorama of stained glass windows depicting a host of important figures from Black history. Later April 15, he met with young adults in their 20s and 30s for a Q&A session at Boston University.

Old North — established in 1723 as Christ Church and whose colloquial name comes from its location in Boston’s North End — is the city’s oldest standing church building and famous for its role in the start of the American Revolution.

Old North Church’s iconic steeple. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh

On the night of April 18, 1775, Old North’s sexton, Robert Newman, and vestry member Captain John Pulling Jr. shined the “two-if-by-sea” lanterns from the church’s steeple as the signal from Paul Revere that the British army was advancing by the Charles River toward Lexington and Concord, where opening battles of the American Revolution erupted the following day.

Old North is now a national historic landmark that receives some 500,000 visitors a year as well as an active Episcopal congregation.

“Good morning, Christ Church, good morning, Old North Church! And not only good morning, but happy birthday! Rumor has it you’re 300 years old, but you don’t look a day over 16,” Presiding Bishop Curry quipped at the morning service April 16. From Old North’s distinctive raised pulpit, he preached on John 20 about what belief means when it’s understood to be about “beloving” and giving one’s heart.

“Jesus says: Do you believe? Not because you’ve seen proof, not because you’ve assented to a set of propositions. The Apostles and Nicene creeds are very important, but it’s less important to understand them and more important to give your heart to the God that’s behind them,” Curry said.

Curry was the keynote speaker at the evening’s Lantern Service, during which he received the Third Lantern Award, given each year in recognition of “illuminating leadership.”

The Old North Chamber Choir was joined at the service by the Men and Boys Choir of All Saints’ Church, Ashmont.  Anthems included a choral setting of Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Bairstow’s setting of Psalm 23 and a new piece, Peter Aldins’s “The Light and the Wind,” commissioned for the anniversary celebration.

Old North’s Lantern Service has been an annual tradition since 1875. This year, readings illuminating significant moments in Old North’s history were broadened to include reflection on lesser-known and less-recited revelations about slavery and the experiences of Black and Indigenous people, enslaved and free, at Old North.

Slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1783, and many of Old North’s early members and benefactors were enslavers, including the first two rectors. Both enslaved and free people of color were members; many were baptized and married in the church. It relied on pew ownership, with wealthier parishioners seated down front and people of color and poor white members in the balconies.

“Many deeply religious people in colonial New England had no trouble reconciling their faith with their status as enslavers,” the Rev. Dr. Jaimie Crumley said in her Lantern Service reflection on recent research into Old North’s history with slavery. She is the research fellow for Old North Illuminated, the nonprofit that oversees historic preservation and tourist operations at Old North.

While some organizations discover their past through oral histories and artifacts, she noted, Old North has a 300-year trove of written records — baptismal, marriage and burial records, sermons, pew deeds, vestry minutes — “that reveal names and stories of people whose lives intersected with the story of this place.” But because they record primarily the words of wealthy white men of English descent, “our challenge is to learn to read against the grain,” she said. “We must return to these archival documents which have been read many times over the centuries with spirits that are open to seeing, hearing, thinking, knowing and believing differently.”

Bishop Michael Curry, with Old North Vicar-in-Charge Matthew Cadwell, celebrated Holy Eucharist at the Sunday morning service wearing new vestments crafted for this year’s 300th anniversary and using old Communion silver gifted by King George II in 1733 on the 10th anniversary of Old North’s founding. Photo: Bethany Versoy

“Too much remains unseen and unknown, yet on this day of celebration we collectively honor those whose names have emerged, grieve those whose names we do not know and do our best to appreciate the complex family histories that have given each of us our names,” Crumley said. She went on to read a litany of names of some of the free and enslaved people of color who were part of Old North during its first 75 years:

“Charles, Margaret, Minga, Celia, Elizabeth… .”

“May the people who were called by these names and the hundreds more whom we have not named rest in honor,” Crumley said. “May they know that we grieve their losses, celebrate their love and continue to hope for a day of justice.”

In his remarks, the Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Old North’s vicar-in-charge, said that “adaptation to changing times is a principle of our history alongside our contribution to the nation and its development.”

“We have wrestled with what it means to be a symbol of freedom knowing that many of our earliest members were far from free. We’ve welcomed thousands through our doors each year for worship, for inspiration and education, people of diverse ages, religions, nationalities and political convictions. Many find themselves and their story somewhere in our story,” Cadwell said.

“This majestic church has witnessed 300 years of history, of triumphs and struggles, of division and reconciliation, the evil of slavery, the lights of freedom and abundant amazing grace. Through it all we have endeavored to be a house of prayer for all people, shining ever brighter as beacons of justice and light,” he said.

Diocese of Massachusetts Assistant Bishop Carol Gallagher introduced Bishop Curry as “cousin” — given that her Cherokee family members and some of his forebears were in the same parts of North Carolina — and said, “I hope you will listen to my dear friend and my dear cousin tonight understanding that we are one family, no matter our religious persuasion, where we have come from or where we are going. His word of God’s love for us all is the best gift that we can share together.”

In an impassioned keynote address about transformational possibility through love of God and neighbor, Curry thanked the Old North community for showing “the courage to face the pain, the courage to face the wrong and the courage to lift up the good–to tell the whole story.” The truth will set you free, he said, “so thank you, Old North, for being a model of what we can be in church, in country and world, until the truth sets all of God’s children free.”

“Even in this time we are very often the seeds that God is seeking to plant that may one day grow into something greater than we ever envisioned,” Curry said.

“I want to suggest that the founders of this country had hopes and ideals and a vision that was greater than what even they could imagine, for they, like the rest of us, were fragile, mortal, sinful human beings subject to the limitations of their times. And yet, in spite of that, there was a transcendent reality, a transcendent vision, an eternal verity that shone through their lives that, in its fullness, they couldn’t even imagine. That was because it was not merely their own imaginations that were stirring; it was nothing less than the very dream of God that was emerging. And so, in the darkest days, it is salutary to remember that, as the Bible says of the coming of Jesus into the world, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, has not and will not overcome it.”

In flickering candlelight from the church’s ornate brass chandeliers, two lanterns were lit at the service’s close, and vestry members Anne Sheetz and Nyasha Toyloy, accompanied by actor Michael LePage as Paul Revere, carried them up a narrow wooden stairway into Old North’s steeple tower in a symbolic re-lighting. Onlookers gathered outside on the cobble-stone walks of Salem Street, necks craned back, looked up into the night’s chilly mist for the new light.

Diocese of Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates gave the benediction: “As long ago in this place did beacons for justice shine, so may we in this land — inspired by our triumphs, acknowledging our failures and redeeming our brokenness — re-dedicate ourselves to be a beacon for others.”

Tracy Sukraw is director of communications for the Diocese of Massachusetts.