First built in 1918, Old North Church’s gift shop has a surprising history. It was once a chapel that ministered to Waldensians, a medieval Christian sect with origins in the 12th century. Learn how this historic building become a pillar of the community for Italian-American Protestants living in the North End.
See below for the video, episode transcript, extra information, and sources!
Old North’s history is much more than just the night of Paul Revere’s ride. Interesting stories come up often in surprising or overlooked places. Like Old North’s gift shop for example. The structure is over 100 years old, first built in 1918. But there is more to its history than its old age!
This building’s original function was a Waldensian Chapel, named the “Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi.” The Waldensians are particularly noteworthy here in the North End, because they were Italian Protestants, a population entirely dwarfed by the predominantly Catholic neighborhood at that time. The Waldensian sect actually pre-dates the Reformation, beginning in the 12th century in what is today France and Italy. They were named for Peter Waldo, who stressed a simpler form of Christianity, strict adherence to the Bible, voluntary poverty, and a more decentralized structure of clergy and worship. The Catholic Church soon accused them of having heretical beliefs, and at various times were nearly eradicated over the centuries. But they managed to survive, and eventually the Waldensians found a place within the larger Protestant Reformation. By the end of the early 20th century, there were pockets of Waldensians in places like Italy and Switzerland – and, through immigration, as far away as Boston’s North End.
As I mentioned, the number of Protestants in the North End at this time was very small, and that is actually where the link to the Old North Church begins. The Waldensians did not have a regular, dedicated church of their own. In 1914, Old North’s rector, William Dewart, realized that, as a fellow Protestant congregation, Old North had an opportunity to support these new immigrants to Boston. Dewart offered use of Old North to the Waldensians on Sunday afternoons, giving the community a regular place to worship in their home neighborhood. Old North also arranged for an Italian-speaking minister, Henry Sartorio, to lead services in their primary language.
The services flourished, and within a few years plans were developing to create a place the Waldensians could call their own. The North End was wildly crowded at this time, with no real space to build – but Old North did have a small courtyard. A “Mrs. William H. Lincoln of Brookline” offered to help pay for a chapel if Old North provided the land – funds were raised, and the chapel was built. On Thanksgiving day 1918, the Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi was dedicated. Symbolizing the connection between the two congregations, the Reverend Dewart spoke during the ceremony as did the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, William Lawrence, who even laid the cornerstone. During the dedication, Bishop Lawrence said that the goal was not some attempt to convert Catholics in the North End, but simply to assist their Italian Protestant cousins in their search for a regular church of their own. And here that building stands today. For years the chapel continued to serve a small but dedicated congregation.
A number of the building’s original architectural elements survive today. The cross on the roof announces the building’s original function, as do the haloed figures (possibly angels or saints) carved into the pillars – still viewable after more than a century of wear. The pillars themselves are the original craftsmanship as well. The stone lions, a frequent symbol used in Christian aesthetics, are a fan favorite for many visitors (the lions usually offer our best chance to introduce the story of the building – their eye-catching appeal tends to provoke a lot of curiosity from the public). And inside, the marble railings that lead up the steps are original, and would have originally led worshippers to their pews. Today, the railings offer a rare chance to literally touch a piece of history!
So, what’s the transition from chapel to gift shop of all things? Already by 1929, just a decade later, there were signs of change. Immigration restrictions in the U.S. and political unrest in Italy had stalled immigration from the home country, so while the congregation remained steady over that time it also never truly grew. In the following decades, congregants gradually began to leave the North End for other, less crowded neighborhoods, or the suburbs – a historical example of the quintessential story of immigrant acculturation over time. With an already small population to begin with, the combined outflow of Waldensians with no additional inflow of new immigrants caused the congregation to slowly evaporate. By the 1950s, the chapel was essentially no longer in use.
But while the religious need had declined, the building became essential in a new way. With the ever-rising interest in Old North’s history and its connection to the American Revolution, the staff here in the 50s were in dire need of additional space in order to fully meet this demand as a historic site. Old North bought the building, and it became a combined museum and retail space, then years later solely a gift shop. So in the end, the chapel returned the favor back to Old North: the building helps support the historic site – the gift shop is an important element of preserving Old North into the future.
Today, the former chapel is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Old North Church & Historic Site always seeks opportunities to shine a spotlight on its interesting history. Of course, the building wasn’t the location for some earth-shattering event that changed the course of history. It’s simply the story of an organization doing what they could to make life a little bit easier for their community. It helps us learn about a lesser-known community whose story could get lost over time. That’s a story worth telling, now more than ever.
Much about this figure remains unknown and based on legend, including even whether his first name was in fact “Peter.” Waldo was a wealthy merchant from Lyon, who in the late 12th-century requested a Bible translated in the vernacular (French), one of the earliest known Bibles written in that language (i.e. not in Latin). In 1173, Waldo gave away his property in an attempt to reach perfection through poverty. He and his followers were originally known as the “Poor Men of Lyon” and traveled and preached throughout the Lombardy region between modern day France and Italy. Waldo’s following grew substantially and outside sources began referring to them as “Waldensians”.
Waldo had never been a member of the clergy and stressed lay preaching and strict adherence to the Bible. It was the focus on lay preaching, including preaching by women, that angered the Catholic Church. Eleven years after his start, the church excommunicated Waldo and declared the movement to be heresy, forcing the Waldensians to hold meetings in secret or hide in the Alps of northern Italy.
His death is varyingly attributed from 1205 to 1218. Various spellings of his name exist, most commonly “Valdes”.
The survival of the Waldensians over the centuries:
The Waldensians underwent numerous attacks over the centuries, at times nearly to the point of eradication. Followers faced notable persecutions and massacres in 1211, in 1487 (which rose to the level of an anti-Waldensian crusade), and in 1545, 1655, and 1685 – these conflicts often forced survivors to relocate to new territory in Italy or Germany. They finally found a degree of stability and religious freedom after the French Revolution in the early 1800s.
Who was St. Francis of Assisi:
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was a Catholic friar in Italy and a leader in a Catholic movement with similar beliefs as the Waldensians. He stressed poverty and charity and, like Waldo, started as a lay preacher: but St. Francis avoided the fate of the Waldensians by recognizing and seeking papal authority. The Franciscan Order traces its founding to the Pope’s approval of St. Francis’ practices.
St. Francis emphasized following Jesus’ example in day-to-day life. He is today one of the patron saints of Italy. Naming the chapel next to Old North after him was likely due to his similar beliefs to the Waldensians regarding poverty.
Quote from the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, William Lawrence, at the dedication of the Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi:
An article written about the dedication in 1918 described the content of Bishop Lawrence’s speech, though it did not quote him directly.
“Bishop Lawrence said there was no idea of proselytizing in building the chapel, that many, perhaps most, Italians were faithful members of the Roman Catholic Church, but that a certain number did not belong to that Church and found in the Episcopal Church the ancient forms and the spiritual atmosphere, along with the freedom, that appealed to them.”
The chapel is designed, fittingly, in Italian Renaissance style.
“An Italian Chapel,” The Church Militant, December 1917.
“The New Italian Chapel,” The Church Militant, November 1918.
St. Francis of Assisi: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi