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Saving a 150-year-old church bell

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Jane Carlson
/
Tri States Public Radio
Dave Howland, vice president of the church council at First Lutheran Church in Galesburg, points to bell from the church sanctuary.

First Lutheran Church in Galesburg has restored a church bell cast in 1871.

First Lutheran Church in Galesburg was organized by Swedish immigrants in the 1800s.

Today worshippers gather in a Gothic-style building at Seminary and Water streets built in the 1920s.

That building is the third location of the church in Galesburg, with a sanctuary and balconies that can seat eight hundred people, towering stained glass windows, detailed woodwork, a soaring ceiling and excellent acoustics.

Dave Howland, vice president of the church council and a member of the church’s buildings and grounds committee, said the church bell in the current building came from the previous one.

“It was actually cast in 1871, and when they built this new church, they moved the bell into the new church. And it’s been here ever since,” Howland said.

A bell stops ringing

Howland said the 48-inch bell was made in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Historically, it rings at First Lutheran seven times every Sunday morning, fifteen minutes before church begins – and also for special occasions like weddings and to commemorate days like the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.

It’s a revered tradition in a church that Howland says is chock-full of history and beauty.

Like the voices in the choir, the bell’s tone echoes inside the church’s hallowed walls.

But earlier this year, after fifteen decades in use, the bell at First Lutheran Church stopped tolling.

“We went up to check because we thought maybe the rope was broken or something. And what we found was that the carriage that the bell sits on had rusted and one side had fallen down to the point the bell couldn’t move anymore,” Howland said.

Spirit of the church

The bell and its carriage weigh 2,500 pounds.

It’s rung from a rope that hangs from the ceiling of the church’s second floor, but the bell itself is only accessible from a ladder that goes up a brick wall to the tower.

To repair it would not be an easy or inexpensive project.

“We really missed it. It felt like not just part of the ceremony of the Sunday service, but part of the spirit of the church was missing,” Howland said.

Howland said it took months to find a company that could restore the historic bell.

Eventually they found McShane Bell Company west of St. Louis to take on the job.

“We needed to replace not just the carriage that it sits on, which is like two A-frames, one on either side, but also the timbers that they sit on had deteriorated, too, because of the rusting of the frame,” Howland said.

Another 150 years

The church estimated it would cost $13,000 for the work.

Howland said they turned to the congregation to help bring the bell back to life.

“We made the estimates including shipping and a contingency fund, and the membership – and also some outside, non-members – contributed enough money that it not only paid for the project, but also covered the contingency fund,” Howland said.

All the parts were replaced except for the bell itself.

Once the restoration was complete, the church bell rang again for the first time on Reformation Sunday.

It’s a sound the congregation hopes can continue for another 150 years.

Jane Carlson covers west central Illinois and southeast Iowa for Tri States Public Radio.