Historic Building of the Week St. Michael’s Church’s history spans four centuries

 

MARBLEHEAD WEEKLY NEWS

Old Photos: Live Photos 12/2/22

At 26 Pleasant St. sits a building that was constructed before America as we know it existed. St. Michael’s Church was built in 1714, more than 300 years ago. Of course, it has changed a bit since then.

When the church was first constructed, the area of the building was 48 square feet and built on a foundation of native stone. At the time of the church’s construction, Marblehead was a primarily Congregational community, but St. Michael’s was an Anglican church. It stood as a sort of rebellion against the Puritans and other independent religions and a revival of the Anglican church in the colonies.

The church was funded by 30 captains including Colonel Nicholson, the colonial governor of New York, Maryland and Virginia. It was established for the amount of 416 pounds, approximately $78,010 in today’s money. Later, they raised 373 pounds for the actual construction.

After the church’s completion in June 1715, William Shaw, the church’s first minister, arrived from England. However, the new church’s presence was complicated. St. Michael’s was required to financially support the other churches until Samuel Shute, the royal governor, made such contributions voluntary. 

Having the ability to retain more of their resources helped the new church, as it had overextended itself in construction. As such, some of the more mundane purchases for a church were a big deal. In 1717, they acquired a bell, Communion service began in 1724, and a chandelier was given to them in 1732. Even prayer books were too much of a cost, with ministers regularly asking around for them. An unusual addition under the church is a sepulcher, where over 100 years, pew owners and their families were buried.

Eventually, as the congregation of St. Michael’s grew, so deepened their pockets.

In 1728, the church purchased 15 square feet of adjoining property and expanded the church building. Alexander Hamilton visited the church in 1744, and the congregation enlarged again. Records even claim that the bell they purchased cracked due to constant ringing to celebrate the Declaration of Independence (the bell would be recast in 1818 by Paul Revere himself).

But this growing support was short lived, as during the Revolution, Loyalists were made to suppress their support of the Crown or leave altogether. The church’s congregation declined until they paused services in 1818. Various ministers kept the church open through the late 1820s, when it was forced to close.

The year 1831 brought with it more change for St. Michael’s. Now a Congregational church, it reopened, but required extensive repairs and remodeling. According to the National Register of Historic Places, these 19th-century repairs transformed the church from unusual-looking and atypical to a Gothic Revival church with gothic-style windows. The pews, altar, and pulpit were also renovated. In 1888, stained-glass windows were installed. 300 years after its original construction, in 2014, a new steeple was added to replace one that rotted out in the 1700s.

This “Handsome Church in the Town of Marblehead,” as it was originally pitched, is still in use despite years of turbulence – social and structural. Perhaps there is some lesson we can learn from this building about strong foundations, weathering storms, or adapting to the changing times, but I’m not an advice columnist– I just write about old buildings.