“You don’t leave your job at a Fortune 500 company and work for a tiny non-profit for the money,” says Collin Norman, Assistant Director of Historic St. Luke’s. “You do it for a passion, something the unending grind of nine-to-five can’t satisfy.”
A familiar face to tourists and locals alike, Collin has been involved in Smithfield’s tourism and hospitality business since he was a teenager. In fact, he’s so passionate about Smithfield and preserving its history that he and his wife, Amanda, took a leap of faith and purchased the old Jordan-Parker House on Main Street (#28 on the Historic Walking Tour!) in September of 2015. “Surprisingly, it was more Amanda’s idea than mine. I just wanted to see spindles back on the front porch. I promise the hedges and some paint are next!”
Collin’s career has come full circle. He first began working at Historic St. Luke’s over ten years ago as a museum interpreter. “It started with my mother asking, ‘Do you think they’d take a 16 year old?’” Collin says. “I wasn’t quite the extrovert I am now. Heck, I think I’m still an introvert parading around as one anyway. But giving tours of the old church taught me a lot about showmanship, dealing with crowds, and public speaking.” He laughs, adding, “Now, with my position at St. Luke’s and how involved I am at the Smithfield Community Theatre, it seems like I can’t stay away from crowds and stages!”
Next stop in the tourism business was as a front desk docent at Smithfield’s Visitor Center greeting visitors, with occasional stints at Boykin’s Tavern and the Isle of Wight County Museum before taking a hard left turn into the world of meatpacking. “I graduated college, got married, and bought a house. Three very expensive things. Little museums and non-profits just weren’t paying the bills anymore.” He smiles and says, “But you would be surprised, working on the tourism front-line in Smithfield, how often my knowledge of hams and bacon comes in handy these days!”
Two years ago, Collin got the opportunity to return to where it all started for him, Historic St. Luke’s. “It was like putting on a well-loved pair of shoes,” Collin says. “I don’t know, like coming home to see some old friend.” Since returning, Collin has been put in charge of multiple initiatives, such as revitalizing the gift shop, growing the wedding business, and managing the day-to-day operations. “I seem to wear an awful lot of darn hats around here,” Collin says, “but it keeps it interesting.”
His biggest challenges have been inside the gift shop. “When I first arrived back, I found products I had physically placed labels on ten years ago. That just wasn’t going to do. Gloria (Assistant Gift Shop Manager) and I went about clearing inventory. We had a few fire sales, cleaned the shelves of older stock, and then completely redid the interior of the shop. We really wanted it to have a museum-like feel. Visitors here are often confused when they arrive on site. They usually mistake the admin building for the church. They also don’t understand that we are no longer an active church, but a historic site and museum. Now we try to make that clear from the moment they step inside the door.”
He walks around the shop pointing at various new items, such as quirky mugs from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild and the ever popular Last Supper fruit and nut bars. “I was really worried about that one. But it is one of the best sellers in the shop!” Collin says.
The shop isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Historic St. Luke’s. “We completely revitalized the information shared on the guided tours last year.” A move, he admits, that has ruffled some feathers. “There are some folks in the community that haven’t taken to it. I still love the old stories too; they are as much a part of our lore and history as anything else these days, regardless if they are fact or fiction. That’s what gives the place its small town charm and makes it unique. Still, we are moving towards offering a broader, national narrative. A broader, appeal gives us a voice in the outside world. We want everyone to come and experience this place.”
Broadening the appeal of Historic St. Luke’s hasn’t stopped with tourists. Over the summer, Collin completely reworked the site’s wedding guidelines. “We were just too rigid,” Collin says. “We had photography rules that were written back when flash photography could give you sunburn! It was time for an update. I’ve had two sets of relatives married here at St. Luke’s, so I have a personal investment in the wedding business. I would have probably gotten married here myself, but, well, I learned two very important words before getting married: ‘Yes, dear.’”
Weddings are booming at Historic St. Luke’s. June, October, and December months are nearly slammed with brides every weekend. With rentals available seven days a week, Collin is hoping to expand that business. “We’ve been Virginia’s premier wedding venue since the seventeenth century,” Collin says with a wink.
Open for business 7 days a week, Historic St. Luke’s stays busy February through December. Tours of the seventeenth-century historic site are offered on the hour for a small admission fee. Concerts, lectures, and other special events are commonplace, and visitors are encouraged to call ahead or visit the website for more information on upcoming activities.
Completing a tour of the grounds, Collin pulls shut the heavy wicket door leading inside the church. “It’s a cool place to work.” He laughs and says, “Look, if a borderline agnostic deist such as myself can get excited about an old church building enough to come back twice in his life, then there is something special about this place.”
Historic St. Luke’s Church
14477 Benn’s Church Blvd.
Smithfield, VA 23430
Facebook Page: Historic St. Luke’s Church