Bell to peal at church again St. Peter's awaits return after century at Wicomico courthouse

November 10, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- St. Peter's Episcopal Church got its bell back yesterday, ending a 108-year loan that put the bell in the Wicomico County courthouse and left the church without chimes for more than a century.

A handful of parishioners, undaunted by gray skies and intermittent rain, cheered yesterday morning as a crane lifted the 1,500-pound bronze bell away from the tower that had housed it since 1888.

"The bell, the bell, the bell -- they did it!" said an exultant John P. Phillips, the parishioner in charge of raising money to pay for the bell's refurbishment and reinstallation at St. Peter's. He, his wife, Marion, and their dog, Remington, stayed all morning to watch the four-hour process.

The bell, which will be refurbished before being hung in the church tower, was lent to Salisbury in the wake of the great fire of 1886, which began in a livery stable and burned down the church and 200 other buildings. It was moved to the courthouse two years later and its ownership forgotten -- until the Rev. David C. Tontonoz, now rector at St. Peter's, asked the Wicomico County Commission this year to give the bell back.

Church records and Tontonoz's research showed the bell belonged to the church. But the most persuasive evidence was the verse from Isaiah 51: 1 -- "Hearken unto me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord" -- clearly visible on one side.

"I think this is marvelous -- I've heard about the bell belonging to us since I was a very young child," said Betsy Hancock, 70, a lifelong member of St. Peter's who arrived at 7: 15 a.m. to see the work on the bell and stayed until it was lowered at 11 a.m. "Now we have it back -- I'm delighted."

Three men -- parishioner John Atkins and roofing workers Walter Jones and Timo Rajala -- worked for four hours in the courthouse's cramped, dirty bell tower, building a wooden platform and loosening the bell from its yoke before moving it onto the platform so a crane could reach it.

"We know what we're going to do -- we just had to take the time to do it," said a grimy but pleased Jones after the bell was safely down from the tower. Among those watching and waiting was Bill Parker, owner of McShane Bell Foundry in Glen Burnie. His company, now the only foundry in America that still makes large church bells, cast the bell for St. Peter's in 1881.

Parker contacted the church after he saw an article about the bell in The Sun and recognized it from a picture accompanying the story. "We have the original pattern of this bell hanging up in the shop," he said. "When this bell was made, they used horse manure as a binder in the sand [used in casting]. We still do it that way. It's a lost art anymore."

Parker took the bell to the foundry yesterday, where it will be cleaned, polished and fitted with an electronic chiming device.

He said he hopes to finish by mid-December, so the bell can be rung at Christmas.

"We're going to put a rush on this," he said yesterday. The bell will be dedicated to Harry Johnson, Tontonoz's predecessor. It was Johnson's wish to see the bell restored, parishioners said, but he didn't live to see it -- he died this year.

Although the bell is out of the county's keeping, there is still work for parishioners to do before the return is complete. Only about half of the $20,000 the church needs for the bell work has been raised, Phillips said.

But the months of work to recapture and restore a piece of St. Peter's past, though not finished, have already brought benefits. "It's really been a catalyst -- it's good for a feeling of togetherness," said parishioner Betsy Creed.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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