Rev. Stephen T. Ayres will retire at year-end from his position as Vicar of Old North Church as well as Executive Director of the Old North Foundation. Turning 65 in December, Ayres has been a community leader at the North End historic site since 1997. He recently broke the news to his congregation saying, “I have loved every minute that I have spent leading the Old North Church and the Old North Foundation and am proud of what we have achieved together in the past twenty-two years.” We had the opportunity to interview Vicar Ayres regarding his decision and how he looks back on his time at Old North.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: Remind our readers how you came to Old North Church in 1997?
Rev. Stephen T. Ayres: I was ordained as a minister in 1980 and came to Old North Church from Wakefield after seeking the position when it became available at the time. I have a Masters degree in Urban Policy from Tufts University and have always been interested in urban parish work. I had community development experience, including in affordable housing, while previously ministering in Wakefield. The move to Boston and Old North Church looked like a good way of combining my interests.
NEWF: How have things changed over the years at Old North?
Ayres: When I arrived, there was only the Vicar and a few staff members running both the congregation and the historic site. It was very chaotic and tight. Soon after, we had the opportunity to purchase the building at 195 Salem Street adding to 193 Salem St., that we already owned. That allowed us to move the tiny office out of back of the church building and establish the Old North Foundation headquarters to manage the historic site. We raised over $1 million to renovate both buildings and I gradually hired more staff members. It was also at that time when the Foundation came into its own with additional independent board members.
NEWF: How did operations change for the Old North Foundation that exists today?
Ayres: After 9/11, we knew that historic site operations needed to be managed differently. The year before, we had over 650,000 visitors, but after 9/11 that dropped by roughly a third to 450,000. At that point, we brought in Ed Pignone as Executive Director to lead the Foundation. Ed retired about eight years later and I took on leading the historic site operations. In the years after the great recession, the economy and tourists fortunately returned to Boston which rebounded our visitor count to its previous levels. However, donations alone were not keeping pace so last June, we made another significant change by charging visitors for admission. (Bostonians are still given free entry.) The new ticket charge was necessary to keep up with higher staffing costs and other expenses.
NEWF: How did the Episcopal Church congregation evolve over that time?
Ayres: Since I was again leading both the congregation and the foundation, the church leadership brought in a new priest. After a transition year in 2011, Eleanor “Ellie” Terry, joined as Associate Vicar. I am obviously still involved in the congregation, but that helped balance the church needs with the historic site.
NEWF: What are you most proud of during your leadership at Old North?
Ayres: When I came here, there was no real programming even for school visits. Now, we are a full-blown museum and historic site with professional staff. Besides dedicated school programs, we also have evening lectures and events to tell our story. Captain Jackson’s chocolate shop brought an opportunity to go deeper and beyond the colonial era. There, we also talk about slavery in the United States and the country’s reliance on the triangular trade. The new Washington Garden will also raise more awareness highlighting the writing of Longfellow’s poem during the Civil War.
NEWF: Speaking of the new garden and fountain project, tell us about that.
Ayres: Previously called the Washington Garden, the new space will be dedicated as Longfellow’s Garden. It is coming along well as we now go back to the Browne Foundation for fabrication. The proposed design will enlarge the opening to the garden, move trees and plants to the edge of the garden in raised planters, and erect a large water feature on which will be etched Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”.
NEWF: Looking ahead, what are your retirement plans?
Ayres: With our son in college, my wife Lisa and I are empty nesters but plan to continue living in Charlestown. I am longtime kayaker and we will look at doing that along with some other travel. I love preaching and hope to continue doing some of that too.
NEWF: How will the transition work at Old North?
Ayres: For the historic site, Old North Foundation is already starting a search for a new Executive Director and there may be some announcements on that in the Fall. I think it is better to have a different person leading the historic site than the congregation. But, each organization needs to determine what their leadership needs are going forward. In the meantime, I expect to work harder than ever as I wrap up raising funds for two capital projects, restoring the Crypt and renovating the Washington Garden.
For the congregation, there will be an interim priest here when I leave. The church leaders will start a search process at that time. The congregation has about 140 members and they will form a committee to discern the desired future direction and to review applications from clergy. An interim vicar will care for the congregation during the search.
NEWF: What are your thoughts on the future of Boston’s historic sites and how it relates to Old North?
Ayres: With America’s 250th Anniversary just a few years away, Old North and other historic sites have been challenged to engage our civic and political leaders. The Freedom Trail has been around since the 1950s with the FT Foundation established in the 1960’s. When the National Park Service came here in 1974, we all thought that Federal funding would help support our mission. While NPS has been a good partner, parks budgets have continually been cut. Most recently, we had been raising funds for Old North’s 300th Anniversary but hit a setback when Old North lost a sizable federal grant to restore the interior of the church under the new administration. We will still work with NPS to restore the crypt but other needed work will have to wait.
As I reflect on the tourism trade, I see Massachusetts and the City of Boston as often taking its heritage for granted. I find it interesting that the City of Philadelphia has a new American Revolution museum with a Boston room, complete with a fake elm tree. It is odd that another city is putting more money into telling Boston’s story than we do here at home.
Civics is often not taught well in our educational system and sites like Old North play an important role in bringing that to our children. I hear all the time how important someone’s field trip to Old North was in their youth. Now, many schools just do not have the funds anymore to make the visit. We step up as much as we can, paying for their bus trips and providing programming, but many schools are still missing out.
I am so proud of what we have accomplished at Old North, but I leave concerned about support for the general humanities in our culture. It is so important to build the civic values of our youth through learning our country’s history.
NEWF: Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to talk to NorthEndWaterfront.com and for your leadership at Old North and in the community over the years. Enjoy your well deserved retirement!