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New church bell ends a long silence

Donations from parishioners help revive a tradition at a Palm Harbor church.

By MAUREEN BYRNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- Debbie Booth missed the bell.

The bell tower at St. Alfred's Episcopal Church has stood empty since 1994, when an old iron bell was removed from the tower because it had lost its luster. A crack was distorting its tone, and the cables supporting it were beginning to erode.

Yet Mrs. Booth wanted the children of the parish, including her own, to be able to hear a bell toll, a centuries-old tradition signaling the call to worship.

So she and five other parishioners, including her husband, Bill, donated money toward the purchase of a new bell, which was installed Tuesday.

The bell, shipped from Annecy, France, was scheduled to arrive in March but wasn't delivered until Thursday. Bishop John B. Lipscomb of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida dedicated the bell during the church's 9:30 a.m. service Sunday.

"We've been waiting for this a long time," said member Bonnie Schumacher on Tuesday. She and her husband, George, who have belonged to St. Alfred's for 12 years, helped pay for the $16,000 bell. "We're anxious to hear it."

The installation was supposed to begin at 9 a.m., but workers waited two hours for a crane to arrive at the church at 1601 Curlew Road. The machine that was supposed to lift the 535-pound bell was broken, and the crew had to find a replacement.

Finally, at 11 a.m., the long-awaited process began. After workers hooked a cable to the brass bell, crane operator Todd Bennett lifted it a few feet off the ground.

Paul Heimbrock, an installer for the van Bergen bell company, grabbed the clapper at 11:03 and banged it against the side of the bell. A deep "BONNNNGGGG" -- tuned to a low "D" -- washed over the 20 parishioners standing in the parking lot.

"It works!" Heimbrock shouted.

Then members began taking turns ringing the bell, including Mrs. Schumacher, 75, who was first in line. "Isn't that beautiful?" she said.

With the help of his mother, 2-year-old Cale Brenchley tried to ring the bell, which has a diameter of just over 2 feet. But he wasn't strong enough.

It didn't matter to Cale's mom, Parilee Brenchley, 42, who videotaped the morning's events. She said she just wanted her son to be part of the church's history, even though he probably won't remember the occasion. "(The bell) will be here for a long time," she said.

After a few others rang the bell, including choir director Kevin Johnson and pastor Rick Lindsey, Bennett got back to work. It was the first time the crane operator had ever hoisted a church bell.

"It's nice to make people happy, as opposed to a regular construction site when you're just building something," he said.

The crane carried the bell into the air, through the trees and over the church as workers waited on a temporary platform around the tower and onlookers tilted their heads upward. Bennett then lowered the bell into the tower as Heimbrock and others secured it in place. Twenty minutes passed before they released the cable.

But there was still work to do. Electrician Jim Healey had to connect wires to the bell. Unlike the church's old bell, which was rung manually, the new bell is electronically wired and is set to a timer, explained Ron Stahlhut, leader of the 3-year-old bell project.

In addition to ringing before worship services, the bell will toll after funerals, weddings and other special occasions, Lindsey said. "But we're also conscious that we live in a neighborhood, so it's not going to play a hymn at any certain time during the week," he said.

Longtime member Vivian Sheldon, 84, gave the largest contribution to the bell fund. She said she made the donation in honor of deceased family members Vivian G. Breck, John H. Sheldon and Sereno P. Sheldon, whose names are inscribed on the bell.

Though Mrs. Booth was unable to be at the installation, an inscription on the bell will serve as a permanent reminder of her efforts.

It reads: "In Joyful Thanksgiving for the Children of the Parish. Given by Bill, Debbie, Natalie and Alyson Booth."

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