Across the years, I’ve spent a good bit of time in the Boston area. Almost all of that time, though, has been spent across the Charles, in Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford. On a recent visit, an errand found me walking from Downtown Crossing into the North End, a route that for most of its distance ran along the Freedom Trail.
Spending time as I do across the river, I tend to forget that the Freedom Trail is one of the most visited historic sites in the whole United States. No doubt the long list of buildings and sites and just ground on which iconic events of American history took place is a major draw. The fact that the trail is outside, free, and well marked — you just have to follow the red brick road, so to speak — makes it appealing for both planned visits and impulse trips, too. As I was walking along, it seemed that every few minutes I saw two or three groups of tourists, many led by park rangers in uniform, others guided by those dressed up in clothes of the Revolutionary era, and still others headed by guides in Victorian costume. There were families and solo walkers as well, consulting their maps and speaking English in accents raging from deep Texas to west of Ireland and in languages including Polish, Japanese, and German.
It was good to see so many people interested in history, and parents sharing this interest with their children, too. As I walked along and took in snippets of conversation as I passed. it did seem rather as though most were taking a sort of “Okay, we can check that one off the list, let’s move on…” way of thinking about things. I get that. I don’t recommend it, but I get it. I found myself wishing that people would stop and take in the sense of being still in a place of history a bit more than most seemed to be doing.
Places will speak to you, if you let them.
One place to listen — one that Freedom Trail visitors rarely spend much time with — is Saint Stephen’s Church. It is the first tall white steeple you see from the Freedom Trail when you come into the North End, so it’s common for people to exclaim “oh, the Old North Church!” It’s not. The red brick of the trail’s guiding line takes a sharp left right in front Saint Stephen’s, turning you toward a statue of Paul Revere across the street., and a bit away through the trees, the spires of the actual Old North Church, the steeple of one if by land two if by sea fame.
Saint Stephen’s has its own claims on history, though. Paul Reverse attended services here, back when it was the New North Congregational Meeting House, and he cast the bell that’s in the steeple today. Some of the original timbers were used when the building was redesigned in the early years of the nineteenth century. The architect of that design was Charles Bullfinch, he who also designed the Massachusetts State House and the US Capitol Building in Washington and many other churches, though this is the only Bullfinch designed church still standing.
Bullfinch believed in light, and the dignity of clear lines of what came to be known as the Federal style, and so created an interior that relies on those principles. Light and clarity live on in Saint Stephen’s. It is a working parish, a place of quiet that holds both possibility and history. If the hustle and bustle that attend the Freedom Trail get a bit wearing — or even if they don’t — a few quiet moments at Saint Stephen’s will add perspective to the stories and sights you’ve been taking in.
other things to do in the Boston area
take in Irish music at the Burren in Somerville
have a tasty informal meal at Oggi Gourmet in Harvard Square in Cambridge
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