September 25, 2020 Catching up with Nikki Stewart of the Old North Church Foundation
HBI caught up with Nikki Stewart, the new Executive Director of the Old North Church Foundation to talk about her vision for one of Boston’s most beloved historic sites and how the staff has worked to pivot during COVID-19. As part of the Freedom Trail, the Old North Church site has worked to develop new programming and scheduling to remain an accessible educational resource during the ongoing restrictions on public space as a result of COVID-19. Read below to hear from Nikki and get the latest updates from Boston’s North End.
HBI: Where did you start your career and how did you end up at Old North Church?
NS: “I started my career at a youth arts organization in East Boston called Zumix. Though Old North is my first history-focused organization, my love of history has come through in each of my roles. For example, during my time at the United South End Settlements, we celebrated the organization’s 125th anniversary. I led the production of an exhibit detailing USES’s role in the settlement house movement. I began working at Old North three months ago. It’s been an unusual time to start a new job, but I am really happy to be here.”
HBI: What excites you the most about becoming the Executive Director at Old North Church?
NS: “My favorite part of the job is seeing people interact with the space. We were open for the first two weeks of the city’s phase three, but based on the numbers we saw, it wasn’t sustainable. After closing at the end of July, we decided to do a pop up and open to the public on September 19th. We welcomed people who came from across the country, and several had emotional responses when they realized they happened to come the one day we were open. One visitor said that visiting was a bucket list item for him. Another had tears in his eyes as he entered the church. It’s incredible to see how much this iconic place means to people.”
“Our staff mobilized quickly to pivot to virtual programming and experiment with things we normally wouldn’t have been able to do. For example, TJ Todd, our Education Manager started a web series called “99% Sure” and in each episode he focuses on frequently asked questions from visitors. One of the biggest questions is always “Is it original?” People always ask about the box pews, cherubs, organ, etc. He talks about what it means for something to be original. What is the impact of modern renovations and maintenance? It’s a great philosophical question in the preservation world. The series is a really creative way to take advantage of the closure and do something different.”
HBI: What are your biggest hopes for the Old North Church site?
NS: “I hope that we have fully rebounded from the pandemic for our 300th anniversary in 2023 and the 250th anniversary of the lantern signal in 2025. And I hope that people will leave our site deep in conversation about what it means to be an active citizen, and how their experience compares and contrasts to the founders of the church, Paul Revere and the other riders that night, and the generations of Bostonians that have passed by Old North.”
HBI: What are some of your upcoming programs?
NS: “One of the projects I am most excited about is researching the connections of the cocoa trade, the trade of enslaved Africans, and how the church and congregants benefited from that global system. In 2019, we discovered that Captain Newark Jackson, for whom our historic chocolate program was named, had direct ties to the slave trade. While our site is closed for in-person tourism, we plan to conduct further research and prepare a new component to our educational programming that will weave together history, economics, and ethics to explore the global footprint of chocolate.
We also have a virtual Speaker Series program on October 7th, which will explore the history of the tunnels of the North End, which many people have heard about in relation to the legends of pirates and smugglers. We hope people will join us as Jake from Hub History separates fact from fiction about the North End’s lost tunnels.”
Thank you for catching up with us, Nikki! If you’re interested in checking out the Old North Church’s programs, including the two listed above, visit the Old North Church website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.