Year of the Bell -Fall 2015
by: Parker Richards
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Beneath the South Church’s iconic golden dome swings a massive bell, weighing in at almost two tons. Manufactured in Lisbon, Portugal at the dawn of the 19th century, it is a regimented timepiece for the island, ringing out hundreds of times per day – on the hour, every hour. Imported from Portugal in 1812, the bell first tolled from the church’s steeple on Dec. 18, 1815.
The history of the bell was unearthed in the 1980s by the then-minister of the Nantucket Unitarian congregation, Rev. Ted Anderson.
The story of the bell begins with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, when the French emperor, freshly returned from military conquests in Prussia, set his sights on the weakened kingdoms of Spain and Portugal.
The bell was crafted by master bell-maker Jozé Domingues de Costa of Lisbon. It is cast bronze and possesses a sharp ring in a flawless A-note so pure that church members can use the sound to tune instruments to this day, said Craig Spery, president of the South Church Preservation Fund, a nondenominational nonprofit charged with the upkeep of the South Church.
“It’s every bit as much a part of our community as the sight of the golden dome of our beautiful meeting house. A community has sonic elements just as it has visual elements, and the bell, its pure beautiful sounds roll over the town like golden globes of light. They vibrate through the air and settle off into nothingness,” said Jim Sulzer, a former president of the congregation.
The bell was crafted using the lost-wax casting method, which creates a mold, then a wax model, then a second mold, then a finished product which must be refined by hand until the craftsman is satisfied.
Charles Clasby and Captain Thomas Cary were the Nantucketers dispatched to Lisbon, a city famed for its bell-making, in 1812 to find a bell for the church.
As the pair inspected bells, striking some, Cary stumbled upon the bell now housed in the tower. Upon tapping it, records indicate that he told Clasby that the bell was ideal, and “a beauty.”
The bell has become enshrined in Nantucket’s history, its rings – hourly, in celebration of major events, and 52 rings at 7 a.m., noon and 9 p.m. – an easily recognizable component of island life.
The tradition of ringing the bell 52 times was merely a matter of practicality, Anderson said. Traditionally, bell-ringers would need to wear gloves or mittens in winter to avoid the cold, and therefore would struggle to read the time. Knowing that the bell was meant to chime for three minutes, the ringers counted and found that 52 chimes was consistently three minutes in length.
The bell was not always as popular with Nantucketers as it is today, however. Libby Oldham, an archivist at the Nantucket Historical Association and member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation, said that for some time its ringing was considered a nuisance by many in the community.
An editorial published in 1883 in The Inquirer and Mirror decried those who opposed the ringing of the bell and defended both the tradition and usefulness of the practice.
“We occasionally hear some persons find fault with our own local institution, the 7 o’clock bell, but the great majority of us regard it as a convenience well worth the expense entailed by it and outweighing the objections of the few who would have it dispensed with,” the editorial read.
The bell was not originally bound for Nantucket. It was supposed to go to Braga, a major city in Portugal’s far north and the former capital of the country.
Braga is home to several shrines that host relics or religious artifacts. The bell, Anderson learned, was initially intended to go with five other identical bells of its type made by de Costa to the Bom Jesus do Monte, or “Good Jesus of the Mount.”
The bell’s affiliation with the shrine was immediately obvious to Anderson upon realizing its name, for the Portuguese bell bears an inscription that reads, “to the Good Jesus of the Mountain, the people of Lisbon offer one complete set of six bells to call them to worship in his sanctuary,” according to Anderson’s translation.
Clasby and Cary departed with the bell aboard the William and Nancy, the trading ship of which Cary was master, and learned before they left port that the War of 1812 had begun between the United States and Great Britain, and any British ship aware of the news would immediately seize the bell to be melted down to be made into cannons.
The pair encountered a British sloop-of-war on the return voyage, but, fortunately, the ship was unaware of the war.
Still, even back on Nantucket the bell was not safe. The American armed forces needed bronze for cannons every bit as much as the British, and would likewise have melted the bell down. Therefore, it was hidden in a church member’s home for three years.
Unfortunately for the South Church congregants, the bell’s weight – roughly 1,600 pounds – had not been fully anticipated by the church’s designers, and the tower began to collapse under its weight. The original tower lacked the lantern room and golden dome of the current structure, which were added upon the first tower’s removal in 1830.
While David Barham, the project architect for the ongoing maintenance and renovations underway at church, said that the entire tower was removed, Anderson claims evidence exists in the internal structure indicating that the building was simply reinforced and heightened. The bell, Anderson said, was raised into the tower through the structure’s interior. Rather than construct scaffolding on the outside of the building, the structure itself was used as a derrick to hoist the bell into place.
But what sort of congregation was it that required such a bell?
At the turn of the 19th century, Nantucket was booming, and the First Congregational Church, or North Church, could no longer hold all its members. Whether there was a theological split or a simple issue of space remains in dispute, but what is certain is that a group of Congregationalists set out to build a new church on the southern side of the town around 1808.
In its early days, the South Church’s congregation was comprised of strict Calvinists of the New England Puritan mode, but it soon began to evolve into a more accepting group, Anderson said.
It was in 1837 that the congregation voted to adopt what Anderson called the “much more loosey-goosey” doctrine of Unitarianism. The Second Congregational Meeting House Society signed on to the theologically Unitarian but organizationally Congregationalist Harvard Covenant, and many of the voting members of the congregation who signed the document were women.
“Unitarian Universalism, in this church, in this time, in this place, is based on an understanding that while we are not sure what happens when we die, we are sure that we can change what happens while we live, and that we can be each other’s salvation, and we
can work together to create not only peace and beauty and joy in individual lives, not only a network of support as we go through our various trials and tribulations, but that we can also create a great sense of beauty and hope and possibility on the island,” said Rev. Linda Simmons, Nantucket’s current Unitarian minister.
The South Church’s transition to Unitarianism represented a sharp theological split with the past. While New England Congregationalism was Calvinist in its teachings, Unitarianism rejected the Trinity and other key tenets of Calvinism such as original sin and predestination.
Unitarianism also rejects the idea of eternal damnation on the grounds that it impugns God’s character and the true mission of Jesus Christ. The Bible is seen not as a divine document, but as the work of humans inspired by God, but still subject to human error. Additionally, science, philosophy, free will and rationality can, in Unitarian thought, coexist with religious conviction and faith in God.
The Unitarian congregation does not view the upkeep of the South Church as a religious issue, hence the existence of the nondenominational South Church Preservation Fund.
Currently, the organization is working with a grant from the Community Preservation Committee to refurbish the roof of the church. The project, expected to cost $250,000 – all of which was covered by the grant – is set to begin soon, as will a maintenance project on the paint on the tower’s top half, slated to cost $50,000 with an additional $56,000 in anticipated costs to erect scaffolding, Spery said.
The new roof will be shingled in red cedar, a more period-appropriate material than slate that is also expected to last substantively longer, he said.
The church has been modified and repaired time and again, with most of the work in the past few decades focused on returning the building to its historically accurate state.
Renovations began in earnest in 1982, during Anderson’s ministry, when it was found that the building was structurally unsound and an engineering report declared it unsafe. Renovations made between 1842 and 1846 had severely distorted the foundation and undermined the building’s structure, and for four years, the church was shut down for repairs, causing Anderson to lead the congregation elsewhere for long stretches of time.
The South Church Preservation Fund was formed to assist in the first round of renovations which restored much of the original trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) painting in the vestry.
The trompe l’oeil work, first painted by the Swiss artist Carl Wendte in the 19th century, creates an illusion of detailed woodwork where none exists through complex shading and patterns. ///
Parker Richards is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a summer reporter at The Inquirer and Mirror.