The Sexton Sideshow, Bringing Music and Community Together at the Historical Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church

Gloria Dei Old Swedes’ Church is the oldest historical church in Philadelphia. Paula and Jim Minacci, the sextons or caretakers of the grounds, have spent years producing music-focused, art-filled public events at this national historic facility. The music and entertainment events generate funds to support the upkeep of the grounds and with outreach extending across the city, they are creating quite a community connection in Queen Village.  


The mission for the Sexton Sideshow is to bring the community together in a safe place to enjoy fabulous music, delicious food, and to interact and have fellowship with each other. “We spend a lot of time producing events, homegrown talent, talents of friends and family to accomplish goals of pulling off a successful show or event. Ultimately, it’s a way of giving back and creating community,” says Jim, who refers to their efforts as their “giving tree” for the church and community.  


The duo are entering into their twentieth year as sextons to the grounds, locally referred to as Old Swedes. “Because there is a wall around the grounds, a lot of times, people don’t think that at Gloria Dei Old Swedes’ Church there are things going on inside.  [The events] bring the outside city in, not just our neighborhoods right around here; we touch people from West Philly, Northeast, etc, so it’s an outreach to bring people into the beautiful place to enjoy music, arts and life who wouldn’t otherwise come in here,” explains Paula.


The husband and wife began coordinating public music events at Old Swedes’ over 10 years ago after a local business, BlueBond Guitars, was looking to do shows outside of their teaching environment and approached Jim and Paula about using the church hall for a recital. It was then that they realized what an incredible opportunity they had to extend the usage of the space and build relationships with the community.  


This month, they celebrated the 10th anniversary for one of their biggest annual events that attracts over 500 people each year, Memorial Dei Family Picnic. The entry cost has hardly increased since the first year of the official event in an effort to make it inclusive for families.


A variety of locations, events and productions are organized throughout the property, providing plenty of space for musicians and artists to perform; for vendors to set up stations and booths, and for the public to congregate during celebrations with the community. This includes the Church, Church Hall, outdoor space on the front lawn of the grounds, as well as parking accessibility, endless green lawns behind the cemetery, outdoor sitting areas, and even a green room area (where they serve the artists with a great deal of food, beverage and hospitality).


Soon after that first recital event, more artists and musicians were reaching out to use the venue for their performances, such as Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie, a well-known, popular band that their son, Dillon Minacci, now manages. “It was one of those moments when I look back on it, it was really key. That night, when [Adam] had his New Year’s Eve show here, it brought like 400 people onto the property. We had never experienced that before. Our shows had been about 100 people, and manageable, and this really went on with a bang,” shared Jim. Ever since then, he feels it’s really been successful for them as far as bringing in great talent and well-known musicians because of that one event and artists seeing the capabilities, opportunities, and collaborations they offered.


Events are ongoing at the grounds. In December, they premiered a live production based on the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” that featured over 20 musicians and singers, including children from the congregation. The event was sold out and received such positive feedback, it will return again this year at the sanctuary in Old Swedes’ church.  


Sexton Sideshow also hosts Sunday Pancake Brunches, which are open to the public and offer live musicians, singer/songwriters, comedians, and a variety of performance artists a stage to perform, courtesy of sponsorship from businesses, restaurants, family, friends and members of the congregation. Sponsors play a tremendous part in making these events possible. Businesses such as Philadelphia Brewing Company and Commonwealth Ciders, who are major contributors, have donated thousands of dollars worth of beer and cider. Restaurants, in and around Philadelphia, including For Pete’s Sake Pub, Reeves McEwing Law Firm, Lucky’s Last Chance, Cry Baby Pasta, Hungry Pigeon, and individual supporters within the congregation, have also donated.


Along with contributing money back to the church, which has recently added new air conditioning in all its facilities, sponsors contribute to paying the musicians and artists who participate in events. Jamie Olson, a singer/songwriter for the Midnight Singers says, “Meeting Jim and Paula and being a part of the Sexton Sideshow family of musicians has definitely opened the greatest sense of all-inclusiveness and collaboration, exposure to ‘all ideas are welcome’ for performances and events; that was adopted by the Midnight Singers band, we had 23 guest musicians on out latest album, many we met thru Sexton Sideshow!”


Paula and Jim are both music lovers and artists themselves. Originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Paula attended Philadelphia College of Performing Arts for Dance (now University of the Arts) and has lived in Philadelphia ever since. Coming to Philadelphia opened her eyes to becoming an artist fully dedicating her life to entertainment and performance arts, including fine arts, dance, theater, and music, and allowed her to gain a deeper knowledge of artistry that helped take her to the next level of a performance art career.  


When it comes to being an artist in Philadelphia, Paula shared, “Art is my life and what I live for.  As your body gets older, you find other ways to bring the arts to you. Philadelphia is a great town for that. There’s a lot of stepping stones here. When you’re an artist you can do a lot of things.”  


Jim moved to Philadelphia in the early 80s from upstate New York and has also been a Philadelphia resident ever since. He grew up playing the saxophone and has always loved and turned to music throughout his entire life. He has expert knowledge about musicians, bands, and albums.  


“I think it’s the real appreciation from the artists. It makes you feel like, wow, we’re touching people’s lives. I am a mentor as a teacher for 40 years, so I never realized until I got older how many lives I’ve touched, but with Sexton Sideshow, it’s a whole new group of people. I see them really reaching out to us and respecting our opinions,” says Paula. Jim adds, “We want to be uplifting and supporting. We’ve been lucky to work with people who really value that and there’s an even exchange of ideas. That’s really fulfilling.”