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Ringing true: History and community resonate in Long Island's church bells

In celebratory and trying times, like the coronavirus pandemic, church bells have become woven into the fabric of Long Island life. The Cathedral of the Incarnation's 13 bells, which can play anything from a call to worship to patriotic tunes, represent the original American colonies, according to the Rev. Michael Sniffen, dean of the Garden City church. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Clanging atop towers and steeples, church bells have been calling Long Islanders to worship and marking historical occasions since Colonial days. They toll for memorials and weddings, mark the hours around the clock and are civic timekeepers, heralding parades and community events.

That rings true especially if you live in such historic areas as Freeport, Setauket or the North Fork, where storied church bells continue to make joyful noise even as the pandemic moves services outdoors and online.

And like many in the community, Bethel A.M.E. Church in Setauket-East Setauket joined congregations across Long Island in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak to honor front-line workers, ringing its bell at 7 p.m. nightly.

"We wanted to show unity with other churches and other faiths in thanking people who put their lives on the line to protect others," said the Rev. Gregory Leonard, Bethel A.M.E.'s pastor.

Church bells have the power to "bring people together," said Beverly C. Tyler, historian of The Three Village Historical Society. Church bells also "make a pleasing sound for people walking or jogging" in historic downtowns, he said.

A number of those bells are still rung with rope pulls. Even when they are automated, there’s generally an option to ring them the old-fashioned way.

Amid the cacophony of modern life, church bells may seem to fade into the background. But the towers and steeples from which they ring are often the most visible structure in a community, said Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program.

"Historically, those bells were important bearers of news," said Friedman, whose organization funds Long Island church bell restorations underwritten by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation in Hampton Bays. "They were alarm bells if there was a fire, and they pealed to celebrate major historical events."

Here are the stories of Long Island church bells that have announced the hours and religious services through the centuries and that can still be rung with a rope and a steady hand.

The bell in the tower of the Congregational
Reverend, Dwight Lee Wolter in front of the
Rick Disney, of Bellport, a member of the

Clockwise from above: Although the Congregational Church of Patchogue has been closed to in-person services because of the pandemic, its renovated bell rings regularly on the hour and half-hour. The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, which was built in 1893. Member Rick Disney of Bellport rings the church’s bell by hand on a recent October day. | Photos by Linda Rosier

The Congregational Church of Patchogue

95 E. Main St.

The bell inside the imposing East Main Street brownstone tower was rung solely by rope until four years ago, when an $80,000 restoration added an automated option.

Although the church building is closed and services are being offered online because of the pandemic, the bell rings regularly on the hour and half-hour, and for special occasions such as the "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ceremony planned for All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1.

"When we ring that bell for parades, people pause because it has incredible psychological and spiritual power," said the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, the pastor.

Founded in 1793, the congregation didn’t get its own bell until after the Civil War and, thus, missed joining the powerful display of national unity when Northern churches rang together after the Confederate surrender in 1865 at Appomattox, said church historian Shirley Werner.

In 1866, a steamship carried the 850-pound bell cast in upstate Troy down the Hudson River to Manhattan, where it was transferred to another boat and delivered by sea to Patchogue, Werner said.

The bell was installed in the congregation’s previous building on North Ocean Avenue. A feat of 19th century engineering transferred the bell to the current and fourth church building, which was constructed on East Main Street to mark the congregation’s 100th anniversary in 1893.

Werner said the bell was probably put in place before the tower was completed by workers using a block and tackle powered by horses.

"Before cars, before electricity, these workers got that bell up there. I think that’s astonishing," Wolter marveled.

200 foot tall tower at The Cathedral of
Larry Tremsky, Canon Musician and Director of Music
Larry Tremsky, Canon Musician and Director of Music

The bells of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, above, are reached by a spiral staircase, right, that ascends about four stories to the bell level. Beyond that, a ladder goes to the top of the tower, more than 200 feet tall. Larry Tremsky, canon musician and director of music at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, climbs the spiral staircase in the bell tower. Its 13 bells, which can play calls to worship and patriotic tunes, represent the original colonies. | Photos by Debbie Eagan-Chin

Cathedral of the Incarnation

50 Cathedral Ave., Garden City

The cathedral, the mother church of the Long Island Episcopal Diocese, was designed to emulate the Gothic-style architecture of many European churches. But its bells are distinctly American.

The 13 bells, which can play anything from a call to worship to patriotic tunes, represent the original American colonies, said the Very Rev. Michael Sniffen, dean of the cathedral.

Garden City is actually much younger than the nation. The affluent central Nassau community was conceived in 1869 as one of America’s first planned communities by New York City department store millionaire Alexander Turney Stewart, then one of the richest men in the world.

After Stewart died in 1876, his widow, Cornelia, funded the construction of the cathedral in her husband’s memory. The bells were cast by the McShane Bell Co., one of the nation’s oldest church bell manufacturers, not for the cathedral but for the 1876 U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia. Sniffen said that Cornelia Stewart attended the centennial and "was so impressed with them [the bells] that she asked to buy them." They were shipped by train and installed for the cathedral’s 1885 opening.

Mechanized since the 1960s, the bells’ repertoire includes Christmas carols; "God of Our Fathers," a hymn written for the 1876 centennial; and patriotic tunes that ring out on Veterans Day.

Because they also sound on the hour and every 15 minutes, "A lot of people downtown use our cathedral bells to keep time," Sniffen said.

The Reverend Canon Richard Dennis Visconti, church Rector,
The bell inside the bell tower at the
The bell tower at the top of Caroline

Clockwise from above: The Rev. Canon Richard Dennis Visconti looks up the last of several stairways that lead to the bell at Caroline Church of Brookhaven. The bell, which weighs 132.5 pounds, was purchased from England in 1729, according to a bill-of-sale in the church’s archive. Almost 50 years later, on Aug. 22, 1777, it narrowly dodged a bullet during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Setauket. | Photos by Debbie Eagan-Chin

Caroline Church of Brookhaven

1 Dyke Rd., Setauket-East Setauket

If the bell at the white Colonial church on the village green could speak, it would tell of centuries of war and peace.

It rang on the holiday in 1918 marking the end of World War I that was originally known as Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day). And it rings annually on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"In concert with other churches and denominations, it gives a sense of solidarity and oneness and binds the community together," said the Rev. Canon Richard Dennis Visconti, rector.

The 132.5-pound bell was purchased from England in 1729, according to a bill-of-sale in the church’s archive. Almost 50 years later, on Aug. 22, 1777, it narrowly dodged a bullet during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Setauket.

A force of 150 Continental Army patriots from Connecticut had attacked the loyalist fort in Setauket, which along with the rest of Long Island was occupied by the British.

Tyler of the Three Village Historical Society theorized that one of the patriots had attempted to ring Caroline Church’s bell with a musket shot, but missed and instead hit a belfry beam. The musket ball was found embedded in the beam during a 1930s church restoration, he said. It was encased in a piece of solid plastic to be displayed at the church entrance.

Nowadays the bell is protected by louvers installed around it in 1889. But it can be heard far and wide when it is rung by an usher, "occasionally with the assistance of a rather rambunctious child," Visconti said.

First Presbyterian Church Southold opened its building in
Rev. Dr. Peter Kelley, Pastor at the First
The First Presbyterian Church in Southold on Friday,

Clockwise from above: The bell at the First Presbyterian Church Southold was installed in the steeple in the 1850s and needs to be wound weekly. The church can call worshippers with a bell, ensconced in its tower, or its triangle, which the Rev. Peter Kelley says “makes a big clang.” | Photos by Randee Daddona

First Presbyterian Church Southold

53100 Rte. 25

Bell or triangle?

Those are the choices for calling worshippers at First Presbyterian Church Southold.

The church building opened in 1803, and its bell was installed in the steeple in the 1850s. Now automated, it needs to be wound every week. "We used to have a team of winders that we nicknamed the Quasimodo club [after the character in "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame"], but the pandemic stopped that," said the Rev. Peter Kelley, pastor. Just one member of the congregation winds it now.

For historical services harking back to the congregation’s 1640 origins, the pastor simply picks up a hammer and rings a metal triangle.

In Colonial days, the triangle was used to call townspeople to worship as well as to government meetings when the church doubled as the town hall. Believed lost to history, the triangle was found in 1976 in the undercroft, a storage space beneath the sanctuary. It was restored and hung on a granite base in front of the church, ready for historic services.

"It makes a big clang," Kelley said.

Bell or triangle, the local community takes notice. "We interviewed people in the community and asked them if our church didn’t exist anymore, what would you miss," Kelley said. Their answer, said Kelley: "They’d miss the bell."

Church usher Maisha Leonard, 35, the daughter of
The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, established 1848,
The bell tower at Bethel AME Church, October

“You have to get a good grip and yank real hard,” says Bethel A.M.E. Church usher Maisha Leonard, above, who pulls the bell rope five minutes before noon on Wednesdays for prayer services. “I love to see people coming because God is calling them,” she says. | Photos by Debbie Egan-Chin

Bethel A.M.E. Church

33 Christian Ave., Setauket-East Setauket

The bell at Bethel A.M.E. Church has stayed silent many Sundays since services went online to stem the spread of COVID-19, though there have been exceptions.

"When the spirit hits, we ring it on Sundays to praise God," said the Rev. Gregory Leonard.

The bell rope is also pulled, without fail, five minutes before Wednesday noon prayer services, which are attended by up to 10 worshippers in the Sunday school room next to the sanctuary.

"You have to get a good grip and yank real hard," said church usher and bell ringer Maisha Leonard, 35, the pastor’s daughter, who lives in the parsonage with her father and works as a page at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library.

"I love to see people coming because God is calling them," she said.

The church, which opened in 1874, is part of the African Methodist Episcopal movement, founded by Black people in the 18th century. Nowadays, its diverse 67-member congregation includes people of European and Hispanic descent, though it is mostly African Americans and Native Americans, the pastor said.

Leonard, who has been pastor for 25 years, said the bell has become a popular attraction for area youngsters. "The little kids love pulling it because it lifts them up," he said.

For adults, it’s a reminder that one thing hasn’t changed since the early days.

"People still have to be reminded to get up and come to church," Leonard said. Added Leonard, "sometimes they get up, and sometimes they roll over and go back to sleep."

Use takes a toll

Centuries of swinging and ringing can take a toll on antique “technology,” quieting bells while they’re repaired.

The bell at Our Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Freeport (37 S. Ocean Ave.), for instance, had been welcoming Catholics to Sunday Mass since it was manufactured and installed in 1915. It also marks angelus hours, at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., a tradition harking to days when such ringing reminded field workers in Europe that God was with them, said the pastor, the Rev. Douglas R. Arcoleo.

After debris fell from the bell tower roof to the churchyard between Masses on Easter Sunday in 2018, an inspection revealed that the bell mechanism had deteriorated. It was dismantled several weeks ago and shipped to an Ohio bell maker for refabrication.

Arcoleo expects the bell to be back in its tower by Christmas. “I want this bell to ring again as a sign of hope,” he said.

The Civil War-era bell at the Jamesport Meeting House (1590 Main Rd., Jamesport), a former church built in 1731, is also taking a pause in its colorful history, which includes a 1900 lightning strike that set fire to the steeple.

Over the centuries the meeting house hosted Puritan, Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist congregations. Community members seeking to prevent a commercial sale purchased the building in 2008, and it was reborn as a performance space. A Unitarian Universalist congregation now leases the space for Sunday services.

And since Oct. 10, the bell has been back in place after a restoration project. “It will ring again” for wedding services, said Richard Wines, the president of the board of directors.

— Jim Merritt

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