Eleven historic bells chime daily on top of the high bell tower at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Salem. One of them dates back to 1740, where its tolled for the death of every president preceding George H.W. Bush.

In January 2018, a series of three snowstorms destroyed the mechanism that rings each of the bells, says the Rev. Nathan Ives, priest in charge at the church.

During that harsh winter, the reverend said an ice dam destroyed the church’s roof, closing it for all worship until April of this year. The entire roof and ceiling were replaced with all new insulation, he says, while the organ, chandeliers and furniture had to be removed and later reinstalled. The bells, which were previously manually rung, are now fully restored and operated electronically.

Fortunately, the original pews, dating back to 1733, were left unscathed. But Rev. Ives added how many of the historic pieces, like the wooden 10 Commandments Triptych from 1738, were removed and placed safely in storage. The damage, totaling to $750,000, was covered by insurance.

“Everyone loves this space,” said Ives, adding how many people have been lifelong worshipers at St. Peter’s.

The historic church, which sits on the corner of Brown and St. Peter streets, dates back to 1733 as the first Anglican church in Salem. The original wooden structure was torn down 100 years later and replaced with its current granite exterior, which was sourced from Rockport.

Around the 1870s, Ives said the chapel was added to the rear of the building. At that time, some of the gravestones were moved to the front of the church, but the remains of many still lie beneath the chapel. During that near two-year stretch of renovations, all services were held in the small, one-story chapel.

“Thankfully, the chapel was saved,” said Ives. “We worshiped in there.”

On Palm Sunday this April, Ives said they held their first service in the grand church, with its high ceilings and stained glass windows.

“To have it all come back together again was amazing,” he said, speaking of everyone who worked together to make it happen. “It was done with such respect.”

While walking through the dimly-lit chapel, Rev. Ives spoke of the church’s early beginnings. Philip English, a prominent Salem merchant, donated the land where the church still sits. He and his wife were accused of witchcraft around 1692 and fled to New York before returning to Salem and opening the Anglican church in a sea of Puritan New England.

Today, many gravestones sit close to the brick sidewalk near the road. One of whom belongs to Stephen Abbot, one of George Washington’s generals during the war. Salem native Nathaniel Bowditch was a frequent parishioner and had his own family pew inside the church, where a plaque still hangs.

With its roots in the Anglican community stretching nearly 300 years, Ives says St. Peter’s Episcopal Church now serves just under 100 parishioners.

“We’re a unique parish,” said Ives. “It’s a vibrant, beautiful community.”

Each Saturday and Sunday, he holds services in both English and Spanish to accommodate the large number of Hispanic and Dominican worshipers in the city. Both services are combined on the last Sunday of the month.

Walking through the pews, Ives pointed out how the church has grown over time. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary of Mexico, and Our Lady of Alta Gracia of the Dominican Republic are now honored within St. Peter’s and line the walls.

Parishioner Ana Nuncio, who lives within walking distance to the church, said she first became associated with St. Peter’s about eight years ago through her work at The House of the Seven Gables. 

“There’s this incredible feeling of spirituality,” she said, both within the building and through its people.

Born in Mexico, Nuncio is bilingual and is a member of the Salem School Committee. During the time of transition within the church, she says she was struck with how quickly the Latino population rallied behind their new reverend. 

“We’re a community where we look out for each other,” she added. “It’s important to have this church up on its feet again.”

Future vision

Born and raised in Rockport, Rev. Ives assumed his position last August, where he came from the Grace Episcopal Church in Connecticut.

“You’re welcome here,” said Ives, speaking of St. Peter’s welcoming atmosphere. “We’re grounded in the present and looking toward the future; I love it.”

Before becoming ordained five years ago, he worked at the University of Connecticut School of Business and also for a nonprofit.

“It was great to come home,” added Ives, a descendant of the Ives family of Salem.   

As a newcomer to the church in the midst of a major renovation, he said it was interesting learning the history behind each object inside St. Peter’s, like the 1700s red velvet upholstered chairs that came over from England.

He went on to say how the church is an active member of the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), where Ives said they participated in the immigrant pilgrimage this August — walking the 76 miles from Boston to New Hampshire.

“We’re trying to listen,” he said. “There are people out here who are hurting and we’re here to help.”

The church also recently partnered with Laundry Love, a national program that washes clothing for the homeless who are searching for jobs. 

“The difference between a job or no job is clean clothes,” said Ives. St. Peter’s will be at the Sunshine Express Laundry Center, located at 95 Congress St., on the last Tuesday of each month from 5 to 8 p.m. to wash clothes free of charge.

“God’s work continues, listening continues,” he said.

Staff writer Alyse Diamantides can be reached at 978-338-2660 or adiamantides@salemnews.com.

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