117 years old and still ringing
After 117 years in service and following a Tuesday blessing ceremony in the middle of Second Street between Lithia Way and Main Street, a time-scarred bronze bell is back up and ringing in the belfry of Trinity Episcopal Church.
A crowd of 50 people, mostly parishioners, watched and waited while workmen bolted and tinkered with the 400-pound bell before a crane finally lifted workers to the tip of the steep steeple, followed, amid cheers, by the bell itself. A refurbished cross was also affixed atop the steeple.
“It was looking creaky and making funny sounds when you rang it,” says Trinity Rector Anthony Hutchinson. “It was on a wood frame and didn’t look completely stable,” so the bell was removed and put on a train to Indiana, where it got cleaned of rust, burnished bright and built into a strong steel frame. That took two months and cost about $10,000.
It rings at 8 every morning, plus on Thursday evening and twice on Sunday before worship services, and also for any moment of national joy, says Hutchinson, such as when the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality.
“Most people in the community find it a comforting, happy thing, a symbol of our ongoing life in this community. People tell me when they hear the bell, they know people are at prayer and someone is out there praying for them.”
While he makes no claims, he couldn’t think of another church bell regularly pealing in town. The bell can “toll” by moving just the clapper, or it can “ring” by moving the whole bell back and forth.
“It’s wonderful to have it back and working,” says parishioner Victoria King. “It calls us to worship service every morning and for funerals and times of national joy. Every time it rings, an angel gets its wings, you know.”
Her husband, Earl King, notes, “It’s a joyful noise to the community and lets everyone know we’re here.”
Shirley Long, who has been going to the church for 71 years, says it’s “wonderful” having the bell back, adding that her daughter and grandchildren were baptized there and he daughter was married there. Couples, when they marry, are allowed to celebrate by ringing the bell.
Her granddaughter, Sarah Bieniek, said she comes every Sunday for the 8 o’clock service and “It’s one of those things, I’ve always wanted to pull the rope. It was neat reading the inscription. The bell was getting creaky and it’s nice to know it won’t come crashing through the roof.”
For the celebration, prayers and chants were said by Hutchinson and visiting Bishop John Thornton and used frankincense and spread holy water on the bell and attendees.
The blessing of the bells is an ancient service, stating, “We ask you send your holy spirit to bless this bell by our humble service that by its ringing, the people may be called into your church and urged on to eternal life.”
After much research, Trinity librarian and genealogist Anne Billeter uncovered the bell’s history. It was a gift in 1900 from thrice-married and twice-widowed Elizabeth A. Smith, now buried in Ashland Cemetery between her parents. In 1864, as a child, she crossed America in a wagon train. She was called a “capitalist” in the census and was an early owner of the Wolf Creek Inn. Here, she lived on Church, Water, Main and Granite Streets. She had no children.
In her honor, the bell is known as “Aunt Lib” and is inscribed, “Our help standeth in the name of the Lord.”
The restoration work was done by Smith Bell & Clock in Indiana, a long trip for the bell, but Hutchinson says there are no such companies in the West that can do it. It took eight weeks.
While other churches may be older, Trinity, says Hutchinson, is the oldest church in Ashland that has its congregation still going in the same location.
A bell, he adds, has always been considered holy, “expressing our joy and love of God.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
(July 12: Story updated to reflect that Elizabeth A. Smith was twice-widowed, not twice-divorced.)