Fixing up church's bell has a nice ring to it

Fixing up church's bell has a nice ring to it

CHAMPAIGN — High above the northeast corner of Church and State streets downtown, catty-corner from West Side Park, gargoyles and cherubs grace the exterior of the stone bell tower at First United Methodist Church.

Architecturally, it's an imposing site. But something big is missing: any sound from the bell within.

Kristin Geis and her fellow parishioners at the 158-year-old church are hoping to change that in the near future.

It was three summers ago that Geis and her family were at a church potluck at West Side Park when her husband and daughter looked up toward the bell tower across the street and wondered aloud how to get up there.

"As the kids get older, they love to explore the church. They had never seen an entrance to the bell tower. We didn't know if there was a bell up there," Geis said.

"I've grown up in the church. I'm 39 and I was a baby when my family started going there," she said, noting she has never heard the bell.

So the Geises started asking other members of the congregation, particularly older members, if they knew how to get up there. Most didn't have a clue.

The late John Jones, the church's business manager as well as a longtime member, eventually led them to the entrance.

"In a stairwell at the top of a two-story staircase is a little attic door. My husband and I have a painting company. We went home and got an extension ladder and met with the building manager, who had never been up there, and we all went up there," she said.

After climbing up another two ladders, they got to the bell.

"It's really big, taller than we are and probably weighs about 1,000 pounds," Geis said.

"I thought it was amazing," said Olivia Geis, now 15, of her first look at the bell three years ago. "The bell was beautiful, although a little rusted, and the frame around it was decaying."

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Kristin Geis immediately started asking questions of parishioners: "Where did we get this? How did it get up here? When did it last ring?"

Church historian Wilson Zaring didn't have the answers in his head but had the keys to the church records, which he let Geis peruse.

"I found a record written in about 1880 that said Rev. Adams was appointed in 1865 and during the two years of his ministry, the bell was bought in 1867," she said.

Further research revealed that the church now standing at the southeast corner of Church and State is the third structure.

The first wooden frame structure was built in 1860 and contained the bell. By 1888, the congregation had outgrown that building. That building was moved to another location to the west and another brick church was built on the same site. The bell was transferred to the new church.

By 1906, the brick church was deemed too small and was torn down by a bricklayer. The current stone church was completed in 1907 at a cost of $60,000. Again, the bell stayed.

So, when did the ringing stop? Good question.

"We've got some pretty old members," Geis said. "I haven't found anyone who can tell me they heard it ring."

Wanting to rectify that, Olivia Geis and her friend Mara Boehm created a PowerPoint presentation on the bell, complete with pictures of the bell and them in the tower, to show the congregation during a "ministry moment" at a Sunday service.

"Everybody was fascinated. Everybody said, 'When are you going to fix it?' Three years later, people are still asking us," Kristin Geis said.

Geis' interest in the bell and the church's history prompted Zaring to ask her to assume the church historian duties. She did so, with a big assist from fellow parishioner Elizabeth Boehm.

"I'm the one with the title but the two of us do it together," Geis said. "She's the one who can remember the details."

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About a year ago, Geis and Boehm visited with Champaign County History Museum President T.J. Blakeman, hoping to find pictures of the original church.

"It has to be one of the oldest bells in the community," said Blakeman, noting that there are "only a handful" of commercial buildings in Champaign County more than 150 years old.

Realizing the value of the bell, Blakeman urged the women to consider a Kickstarter fundraising campaign.

Church building manager Jason Mack found two companies in the nation that do restoration work.

Mack has been up in the bell tower only twice in the four years he's worked at the church — "one time on an exploratory mission and the second time we went up there to take pictures to share the details of the bell with the restoration company and get some quotes."

Mack received an estimate of $25,000 from the Virden company of Cincinnati, started in 1842.

About 40 years ago, Mack said, Virden installed an electronic bell system at First United Methodist, which rings daily at noon. Since the company was already familiar with FUMC, he asked the church board to consider using them for the work.

The board gave its blessing. Now comes the next challenge: coming up with enough funds to foot the bill.

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Once begun, Virden's work should take three to four months.

"They will cast a replica A-frame that holds the bell," Mack said.

He explained that the bearings on the current wood frame have seized up from rust, preventing the bell from swinging. Those and the deteriorating wood frame will be replaced so that the bell can swing freely.

"There is a wooden armature that the rope connects to, to rock back and forth. That is broken, too," Mack said. "They would replace that with steel."

Mother and daughter Geis are among those who have reached up under the bell to clang the clapper so they have an idea how it will sound.

"We were able to ring it for a couple seconds," Olivia Geis said.

Mom is hopeful that by spreading the word about the project, there might be interest beyond the congregation in helping pay for it. A GoFundMe account stands at about $16,500 — about $8,000 short of the total cost.

Olivia Geis said she's trying to keep congregants motivated by sharing updates about the project.

Her mother said she can't remember a project or issue that has united all generations of the congregation more than this one.

"The youth want to hear it, pull the rope and make it ring and the older generation want to hear it," she said. "We have aging members who want this to ring before they die."

How to help

Tax-deductible gifts can be made directly to: First United Methodist Church, 210 W. Church St., Champaign, IL 61820. (Specify that the gift is for the bell).

To give online, go to gofundme.com/FUMC-bell150.

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