This is the second installation of Jessica Dello Russo’s “Brethren, Bethel, And Basilica”, following part one.
Inside the only surviving Colonial-era house of worship in Boston’s North End, today’s Christ Church or “Old North”, a modern plaque on the wall close by the door to the vestry (below a bust of George Washington) states that Charles Wesley, M.A., an Anglican priest, preached to the congregation and assisted with Holy Communion over several Sundays in the fall of 1736, when Christ Church was barely a decade old.
Wesley’s name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Paul Revere during church tours, but he too, in a different way, helped start a revolution. In Wesley’s case, the cause was saving the soul of England’s church, into which he, his brother John (also an Anglican cleric) and colleague George Whitefield, sought to infuse a new energy through the practice of certain “methods” of piety that they believed restored to Christianity the joyous hope of salvation through belief in Jesus Christ.
This movement, known as “Methodism”, was and is deeply spiritual with its emphasis on free will and individual grace. In its enthusiasm to reform the Anglican church, however, it became, in the late 18th century, its own Protestant denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, with its own priestly ordination and unique worship traditions (Charles Wesley alone is said to have composed over 6,000 hymns – hence his attribution in the Old North plaque as the “sweet sage of evangelical Anglicanism and poet of jubilant Methodism”).
The Wesley brothers’ movement made its first permanent home in Boston in 1795 in “a most obscure place in the North part of the town”, on a byway from the wharves known for generations as “Methodist’s Alley” (now Hanover Avenue). The two-story wooden building, simple, yet distinctly Federalist in design, does not survive, as the community moved to a larger building on North Bennet Street in 1828 (which became the Freewill Baptist Church in 1850, when First Methodist moved yet again into a Unitarian church, built just a few years before, on the site of “New Brick” near the corner of Hanover and Richmond Streets). Even though the move was to a more prominent location, with more foot traffic and public sites like schools, the North End Methodist community was mostly made up of individuals and families on the lower rungs of the city’s socioeconomic ladder, and thus it relied heavily on donations from wealthier congregations and individuals outside of the neighborhood to fund its North End mission.
It’s worth going into some detail about a Methodist presence in the North End from the start, because its activity in the area helps to illustrate the look and feel of the North End in the first half of the 19th century, an era hard to visualize today, architecturally speaking, as the Freedom Trail and other patterns of historic preservation make visitors switch off between the Colonial era and 1900 with every step.
The overwhelming presence of late 19th century tenement construction suggests that in the early 1800s, changes to the Colonial layout of the North End were not yet so drastic, at least in terms of living space and the general scale of its streets and buildings, though, of course, the expansion and industrialization of the waterfront beginning in the 1820s had set the Colonial-era cottages and townhouse inland, enclosed by a ring of bulky factories and storage sites. Many of the older structures were themselves now bursting at the seams with additions and people. The city could keep track of the tax-paying building owners, but borders remained nameless and impossible to really count. It was hard to get a grip on the situation and keep up with the needs and wants of residents without a name.
The sad irony was that the small size and intimate design of the historic homes from the 1600s and 1700s now emphasized the area’s poverty, with the gardens and orchards of pre-Revolutionary times used as storerooms in the open, or covered up by additional living space. The area’s decline was so marked that almost all the North End’s Colonial buildings were sacrificed around 1900 to create an even greater supply of cheap housing stock. The North End as we know it begins in this era, as a modern brick jungle, now gentrified, but proud of its tenement roots.
The long, curving street connecting North Square to today’s City Hall Plaza went by different names at different points during the early 1800s. The tract running by Faneuil Hall and the modern Greenway was known as Ann Street, as it intersected with Union Street, named in honor of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland during the reign of Queen Ann. Skirting the marketplace, the street attracted a transient population, including commercial travelers, seamen, new arrivals to the city, both foreign and domestic, and others trying to make it in a trade, even that of the flesh, immortalized in a police report as the work of the “nymphs of Ann Street”, routinely rounded up but never completely disbanded.
As one of the gateways to the North End, this drag of streetwalkers, grog shops, and boarding houses, known as “The Black Sea”, did indeed cast a dark shadow over the entire area, forcing other types of community establishments to uproot, including some of the neighborhood’s historic religious congregations. Proper Bostonians had strong ties to the churches of their forefathers, but, as one Unitarian congregation found out, some were now reluctant to appear “so ungenteel as to attend worship in the North End”. The solution in most cases was to move the mountain to Mahomet, in a manner of speaking, which is why North End congregations with 17th century roots like those of Second Church and First Baptist are now in the Back Bay.
At century’s end, in 1900, most North End churches were Roman Catholic, with a few meeting halls actively used for worship and instruction by Jews. First Methodist also left its second home on Hanover Street in the early 1870s, but in name, only: the winds of change took its English speaking congregants elsewhere, and North End Methodists now lived and preached the Gospel in Italian in the Seamen’s Hall at 287 Hanover Street.
Other American Protestant establishments, including those of the Baptists, Unitarians, Universalists, and Episcopalians, followed suit. Missions, however, were by nature ephemeral, and little if anything of these faith-based programs survives: for example, the former St. Francis Chapel on Salem Street (now the Old North gift shop), the sign for the North End Union, a Unitarian settlement house, and more plaques on otherwise nameless building facades. An amazing exception is right before our eyes, however, in North Square, where two brick buildings cast a long shadow of history across the modern Freedom Trail. Their message, however, was not freedom of speech, but freedom from sin. Together, they are a moving testament to the vision and legacy of Methodism to the North End.
For nearly fifty years, North Square had no building designed and built for use as a house of worship. British troops had torn down the Second Church in 1776, and on its site stood brick townhouses. The square – actually more of a triangle then, and trapezoidal today – was small but functional, with a water pump (or relief station, like a hydrant), hitching posts (horse parking), space for itinerant markets, and, more than anything, large patches of sunlight that did not always reach the ground of the narrow streets nearby (though some visitors lamented the removal of the trees from Colonial times).
Around 1830, a fire in the North Square area induced the city to widen some of the streets leading into the square, leading to the demolition of older structures, including the great mansions of Clark and Hutchinson on Garden Court Street. Happily, other old buildings, including the house of Paul Revere, built ca. 1680, remained standing. The area now contained a mix of commercial buildings and townhouses, rather like the older areas of Charlestown or what once existed in the Financial District and West End. This redevelopment also brought a church back to North Square, but with older churches standing nearby, it was funded and staffed as a mission church, as its first pastor put it, “where the fish ran”.
The odd phrasing in a sense is not strictly metaphoric. The church was put in North Square in order to be visible from the wharves. Its square tower was topped with a mast from which flew an enormous banner with the word “BETHEL”. Identical flags were raised in other ports like Salem and New Bedford, and hoisted to the masts of ships to signal a religious service on board. Like a non-profit of today, the Seamen’s Bethel’s mission was outreach to mariners and their families residing or passing through Boston. Various Boston denominations backed this form of outreach, but the Seamen’s Bethel in North Square is unique as explicitly non-denominational, a sort of joint venture among a “union” of Protestant churches that owed much of its success to its charismatic pastor, Edward Thompson Taylor, or “Father Taylor,” (1783-1871), a Virginia-born former sailor who found a spiritual calling in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Fr. Taylor’s first North End congregation held its prayer meetings and other services in the “cradle of Boston Methodism”, the now-vacant chapel on Methodist Alley. The building could not hold the crowds, however, and even a taxing schedule of four Sunday services could not provide a long-term solution to crowd management “on one of the obscurest lanes in the city”. The Methodist backers of Taylor’s mission church sent Taylor on several fundraising campaigns outside of Boston, even abroad, but major financial assistance to build a new mission church was secured closer to home from rich and influential Bostonians of other church denominations, especially Unitarian, so that the church was run independently, as a charity, under the auspices of the Port Society of the City of Boston and its Vicinity (the Boston Port Society). The church was Methodist in its prayer meetings, music program, and drive toward a “perfect” Christian life, but truly ecumenical in outreach and reception.
The church Taylor built at a cost of $24,000 with donated funds was plain but sturdy, using post and lintel construction in granite and brick for the ground floor, and brick for the upper part of the building, the actual meeting hall. Like older houses or worship in New England, it had a square brick belfry embedded into the building’s facade, but no steeple except, at one point, a little pyramid-like roof. Light streamed into the front staircases, upper atrium, and hall through tall windows of plain glass, many arched. It is harder to reconstruct the building interior, but contemporary witnesses describe an “open” pulpit on tall wooden pillars with cushions in maroon velvet, a donation from the Chambers Street Unitarian Church.
Next to this, on a much lower level, was the altar, also of wood. On the far wall opposite the sanctuary space, above the doorways into the hall, was a choir gallery with organ (at times accompanied by other musical instruments). The rectangular hall itself could accommodate about six hundred people, for the most part seated on long wooden benches at either side of a central corridor. Side corridors also led to additional seats, and stairs in the back to even more seating in the galleries built up along the long walls of the church.
Taylor, however, was known to put people wherever they could fit, even on the steps to the pulpit, with priority always to seamen and their families, seated front and center (visitors sat in the side pews). There was no fee to attend the church – it was an open parish – and apparently fully integrated and welcoming to all, regardless of skin color, nationality, or creed (a number of Taylor’s assistants – his “Hebrews” were foreign, and he preached openly against bigotry in its many forms, once with the pity observation that, if Catholics and tobacco-users (among others) should be excluded from the Gospel message, “Christ’s mission was a failure. It’s a pity he even came”). Other notable features of Taylor’s bethel include not one, but two baptismal fonts. One was a gift from a Charlestown Navy Yard commander, and made from the timber of Old Ironsides. The other vessel was in silver, also a gift from a wealthy benefactor. Taylor let sailors choose which one they would like to use. Provided to Taylor as well by community largesse was a hefty Bible for use in the pulpit, though his sermons were largely off-the-cuff. This might be the Bible of the period now on display in the Mariner’s House on North Square.
Aside from these instruments for worship, and some fine chandeliers donated from a local Masonic lodge, the church interior was clean and sturdy, without any of the statues and frescoes and stained glass panels that decorate it today. Though Taylor himself declared that he did not want “arches and draperies and columns” for “his house”, an altarpiece does seem to have been hung at some point on the wall behind the altar and pulpit, below a window with curtains. This was an oil painting of an American ship on stormy seas, navigating to a safe harbor, symbolized by a large golden anchor shining above the waters, like a cross in the sky, and the Angel of Mercy parting the clouds. Charles Dickens, however, describes the backdrop of the altar as “printed drapery of a lively and somewhat theatrical appearance”.
Though the bethel’s constitution permitted ministers of other denominations to use the building, Taylor was always the institution’s big draw, preaching on Sundays and at Saturday evening prayer services, a cherished Methodist tradition. Marriages, baptisms, and funerals were held during these meetings, or separately. As a charitable society, however, the church sponsored many other initiatives, administered in the many rooms on the ground floor below the hall.
Many of these good works were devoted to helping women and children, like a provisions shop, the Seamen’s Boarding House and Clothing Store, for sailors’ families and others in need, a clothing factory that employed women and daughters of sailors, a school for both children and adults, a sewing circle for female members of the Seamen’s Aid Society, a library with religious reading material, and meeting space for social gatherings under the aegis of a church (church lodgings were in another building or buildings nearby). Many of these initiatives moved across the square to the newly-built Mariner’s House in the late 1840s. The bethel also leased out commercial space for additional income, and had the use of several buildings nearby for temperance lodgings and Fr. Taylor’s own residence.
Fr. Taylor’s mission enjoyed decades of success, including the creation under the auspices of a sister organization, The Seamen’s Aid Society, of a temperance boarding house – a dry house, with curfew and chapel services – called the Mariner’s House, located on the opposite side of North Square. Built of brick and granite with many Greek Revival and other decorative elements, the building opened in 1847 and is one of the oldest continually operating lodgings for sailors in the United States.
The Bethel had Taylor, and Taylor had the Bethel, and so it went on for decades, from 1828 until his retirement from active ministry in 1868. The North Street Bethel, not quite forty years old, was experiencing no longer its own growing pains, but those of the district. The North End in the 1870s was predominately populated by Jews and Roman Catholics. As collegial as Taylor had been to Bishop Fitzpatrick, leader of the Boston diocese, and his priests in neighboring Roman Catholic missions, there was no getting around issues of doctrine and that many new residents, non-English speakers, could not heed Taylor’s call, and when Taylor himself crossed the bar in 1871, the congregation went adrift in what was no longer so much the “Black Sea”, but that of the sunny Mediterranean.
Methodists of the era attribute the closure of the Bethel in the early 1880s not to a lack of “Methodist zeal”, but rather from the congregation’s financial feebleness and changes in the maritime industry that brought fewer sailors to its door. For several years, the Bethel stood vacant, though Methodist services continued to be held in the chapel of the Mariner’s House, as well as in Cockerel Hall on Hanover Street, which became the public face of Methodism in the North End.
Church-run missions continued in operation in rented halls next to newer dock areas at some distance from North Square. In fact, church buildings all over the North End now were changing hands from Protestant to Protestant, Protestant to Jewish – and above all Protestant to Catholic. Already in Taylor’s time, one of the Bethel’s closest neighbors was the St. Stephen’s rectory. In 1884, another Catholic group approached the now-united Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society seeking to purchase the Bethel building for Catholic use. To a Methodist, it might have seemed not at all strange that there was not a priest among them. The Bishop of Boston –and soon thereafter, the Vatican, on the other hand, viewed the whole affair with deep suspicion. The next mission to operate out of the building would not have so benign a welcome as Fr. Taylor’s had been to the North End fifty years before.
Jessica Dello Russo is a native North Ender and daughter of regular NorthEndWaterfront.com contributor Dr. Nicholas Dello Russo. A graduate of the Vatican’s Institute for Archaeology, she now directs an archaeological foundation in Boston, the International Catacomb Society.