By Tom Dietzel
The third article in a four-part series detailing the fascinating story behind the Belgian angels on display inside Old North Church.
Christ Church (Old North’s official name) was the largest and grandest house of worship. It was funded mostly by the wealthier Anglicans who were required to purchase their membership into the congregation. With pews selling for upwards of £30 or £40, this was a well-to-do parish. As members of the Church of England, the people of Christ Church would have shared the Francophobic sentiments of their countrymen in England. Also, much like the Puritans in Boston, the population of the church would also have disliked anything that smacked of “popery,” a connection or allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Now on multiple fronts, hatred between the Catholic French and the Protestant English grew and with every contest for territorial control, the hostilities increased.
It is at this time that an English gentleman from the Isle of Jersey appeared in Boston and purchased box pew number 25 in Old North Church in 1741. Captain Thomas James Gruchy was a bit of an elusive figure, but a successful businessman nonetheless. According to Clara Reeves in her book Captain Gruchy’s Gambols, Gruchy was known as a “charming Jekyll-and-Hyde who appeared…and stayed a few years.” While much of his childhood and his life after Boston remains a mystery, his time spent at Old North Church was so involved that we are left with a great deal of information. For instance, the peal of English church bells at Old North is the oldest in North America; they were cast in Gloucester, England in 1744 and installed in the tower of Old North the following year. A small part of the money generated to fund this project was the £15 that Gruchy had given the church. Gruchy, an able mariner and son-in-law to a ship rigger, was making his money on the sea.
As a seaman and a member of Old North Church, Gruchy mingled with other upper-class merchants and adventurers. In light of the new war with France, five members of Old North Church, including two of the churchwardens, pooled their resources and joined in the purchase of the brigantine Queen of Hungary. Apart from being a 1/16th owner of the ship, Gruchy was named captain. As war loomed, the owners, investors, and crew drafted and signed a contract titled “The Articles of Agreement” on January 13, 1744. The agreement outlined the command structure, the parameters of voyages in times of war and peace, as well as the dividing of prizes, compensation for the loss of life and limb, etc. Seventy-three men signed the document, including the wardens Robert Jenkins and John Baker, as well as John Gould, Hugh McDaniel, John Rowe, and William Bowdoin. Gruchy would spend much of 1744 at sea attacking French and Spanish vessels, keeping the prizes to repay investors and crew. That year, as captain of Queen of Hungary, Gruchy made himself and the other investors a considerable profit.
With newfound wealth and status, Gruchy fit right into the social atmosphere of the North End elite. He purchased a large mansion once owned by Spencer Phips. For £775 Gruchy now owned a twelve-room house at the corner of Salem and Charter streets; the mansion was known as “the pride of the North End.” As King George’s War continued to rage a large contingency of Massachusetts men and ships were amassed to attack Louisbourg in New France. Captain Gruchy declined the offer to participate; it’s likely he preferred the profitable game of privateering to actual military service. In 1745 he was at sea again, this time he was fighting the French off the New York shore. In this particular voyage, Queen of Hungary took three French prizes, including a ship called Postillion and with it, 50 men, 320 hogsheads of sugar (approximately 46,000 gallons), and 40,000 pounds in indigo.
Gruchy proved to be a man of honor. Two of his crew members deserted from the voyage, breaking the Articles of Agreement, as such, forfeiting their shares in the prize. Gruchy wrote to the British agent in Antigua, Charles Matthews, on May 26, 1745:
“After returning you thanks for yr. care of our interest. Inclosed ye have a copy of my power as an agent for my people that in case any of my runaways would come to you for anything you would let them have it as they have forfeited their share by leaving the vessel which you’ll see by the Articles. I enclose your copy of, likewise, send you a copy of my Spanish commission & the number of the hands-on board when we took the Postilion. My people insist upon their parts being insured which is she comes under convoy of Jeffry & Richard or either of them it may be done at an easy rate…Notwithstanding what has been said above Leave it entirely to you to act as ye think most for our advantage & remain Sin Yr Very hble servt.”
By August of 1745, two local judges ruled in favor of Gruchy’s claim, that the deserters had no rights to claim their prize. Throughout the winter of 1745, Gruchy spent time at court, properly dividing the monies brought in by privateering, and by the following spring, he was becoming a more active member of Christ Church, being named a member of the vestry on March 31, 1746. It was in this year that the member of Old North Church who had been business partners with Queen of Hungary met to discuss a gift to their congregation. On June 16, 1746, the vestry records show an entry that reads:
“Whereas Mr. Robert Jenkins, Captn. Grushia, Mr. Hugh McDaniel, Mr. John Goule, Mr. John Baker, Onersof the Privater Queen of Hungary hath made a present to Christ Church in Boston, of 4 Cherubims and Two Glass Branches Taken by ye Sd. Vessele.
Voted that the Branches be hung in ye body of the Church and ye Cherubims placed on ye top of the Organ”
No record is given as to exactly from which ship the angels were taken. What is known is that whatever engagement that led to Gruchy’s possession of these items was held in a declared state of war. In accordance with his right, Gruchy would have taken all of the French supplies, goods, and valuables and shared them amongst the crew, owners, and investors. As the five members of Old North Church made up five of sixteen shares, not to mention Gruchy’s second share as commander of the vessel, it is easy to see why such prized items found their way into the gallery of Christ Church in Boston. The destination of the angels is still a mystery, but oral tradition sheds some light. The angels were on ships of France and were engaged off of the American coast; the only logical explanation is that they were headed for New France (Canada) somewhere along the St. Lawrence River. In the Francophobic, anti-Catholic environment of Boston in the mid-eighteenth century, it is easy to believe that the details about the angels destined for a Catholic church in New France but being liberated from popery were added in by overeager parishioners. It’s possible that those details were added by Gruchy himself, or the other owners. Of course, it could be that the stories are completely true; what lacks is documentation.
To be continued …