Old North’s Sexton: Then & Now

By Chloe Lin

 

Late in the evening of April 18th, 1775, two lights briefly appeared from the steeple of the Old North Church. Across the Charles River, about thirty riders mounted horses and disappeared into the countryside, warning minutemen throughout Massachusetts of marching British soldiers heading towards Lexington and Concord. The following battle marked the start of the American Revolutionary War, and the rest, of course, is history.  One of the men who hung those lanterns was Robert Newman, a young man from the neighborhood who was employed as the sexton of the Old North Church. As the church’s sexton, Newman was responsible for maintaining the church and its grounds, and was thus one of the few men in possession of keys to the building. Newman’s familiarity with the church aided him and John Pulling Jr. in quickly and quietly ascending and descending the steeple to discreetly display their signal lanterns. Newman played a vital role that night in 1775, but you’d be very much mistaken if you think his legacy is all part of Old North’s storied past.

By Chloe Lin

 

Late in the evening of April 18th, 1775, two lights briefly appeared from the steeple of the Old North Church. Across the Charles River, about thirty riders mounted horses and disappeared into the countryside, warning minutemen throughout Massachusetts of marching British soldiers heading towards Lexington and Concord. The following battle marked the start of the American Revolutionary War, and the rest, of course, is history.  One of the men who hung those lanterns was Robert Newman, a young man from the neighborhood who was employed as the sexton of the Old North Church. As the church’s sexton, Newman was responsible for maintaining the church and its grounds, and was thus one of the few men in possession of keys to the building. Newman’s familiarity with the church aided him and John Pulling Jr. in quickly and quietly ascending and descending the steeple to discreetly display their signal lanterns. Newman played a vital role that night in 1775, but you’d be very much mistaken if you think his legacy is all part of Old North’s storied past.

 

The role of church sexton is still alive and well at the Old North, and our sexton today is a much beloved and vital part of the site – although he does a lot less midnight steeple climbing than Robert Newman! Since October of 2011, Tim Wenrich has been the sexton at Old North. Just like Robert Newman, Wenrich lives in the neighborhood – actually within eyesight of the church – so that he can be the first to arrive, any time of day or night, when needed at OId North.  So what’s in a day of the life of a church sexton? Most mornings begin with a routine cleaning of the campus: the church, the gift shop, and the Clough House all need to be consistently vacuumed and mopped, and the bathrooms cleaned and restocked. Thursdays are trash collection day, so Wenrich is out and about by 5 am attending to the trash on campus and hauling it to the curb. And, of course, every snowfall is swiftly cleared away so that visitors can safely navigate the campus. Wenrich’s work doesn’t just benefit visitors to Old North, and he’s been recognized with a Good Neighbor Recognition Award by the North End/Waterfront Resident’s Association for his contribution to keeping the North End neighborhood beautiful and trash-free!

 

Once the morning’s cleaning and tidying tasks are over and done with, an ever-changing and often unexpected array of tasks crop up in the afternoons. Wenrich can never be sure if he’ll be expected to inter ashes in the church’s columbarium, walk brochures down to Faneuil Hall, or re-hang sagging wires around campus. Wenrich often makes use of his construction background and head for heights in the course of his work, although his carpentry background doesn’t serve him quite as often. He summed it up best with, “You can’t buy a new piece of plywood at Home Depot to fix a three hundred year old building.” Lately, as the church has been gearing up for Christmas, Wenrich has been overseeing a lot of decoration-related tasks, among them, setting up for wreath-making and hauling this year’s 10-foot long Christmas tree to the deck behind Old North’s central window.

 

Among all of the varied duties that Wenrich is responsible for as sexton, he has a clear favorite – the annual Lantern Ceremony. The week leading up to April 18th, Wenrich makes sure the lights high up in the steeple are ready to go, and the evening of the ceremony itself, both he and the honorary lantern lighter will go into the tower to do the honors – just like Wenrich’s predecessor, Robert Newman, did almost 250 years ago. It’s during the annual lantern ceremony when he senses the weight and importance of the position the most, and feels pride in being a part of Old North’s long history. Like any other job, there are petty grievances that come up day-to-day, but for Wenrich, they all melt away the moment those lanterns are lit, and the event’s attendees walk out the front doors of Old North, singing patriotic songs and feeling united by what this country has achieved since 1775. Wenrich doesn’t know the exact details of what happened that night anymore than you or I, but he does know that what Newman did in that steeple reverberates through history even today, and that the least he can do is maintain and care for Old North, just as Newman did.

 

So, the next time you visit us at Old North, don’t forget to say hello to Tim as he keeps the church, the Clough House, and the gift shop tidy and clean! And don’t neglect to pay a visit to Robert Newman as well: he’s buried up the street at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, within view of that famed steeple he climbed all those many years ago.


Tim at work carefully lighting each of the candles on one of the original brass chandeliers.

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