by David McCabe
When, in 1908, Mrs. Russell Sage purchased one 2,000-pound bell from the Meneely Bell Company for the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor Village it came with a guarantee that it would work for ten years. The bell outlasted its warranty by 92 years, until cracks in its wooden support mechanism rendered it inoperable in the fall of 2010.
Now, the bell is once again sounding over Sag Harbor thanks to a fundraising effort led by parishioner David Bray in memory of his partner Neal Hartman, who died in October, 2010
The new bell will be officially dedicated to Hartman during a short ceremony this Sunday — marking the beginning of another chapter in the history of an object that has been in use for more than 100 years.
When he was still alive, Hartman would ring the bell at the end of services every Sunday. It was shortly after he passed away that the church had to stop using the bell because of the damage to the surrounding wood. A company brought in by the parish also recommended that the bell be repainted and that crucial bolts be replaced, since they had been in use for more than a century.
Bray was approached by Father Shawn Williams, who was the Priest-in-Charge of the parish at the time, suggesting that repairing the bell would serve as a fitting memorial to Neal. A first round of funds were raised from Hartman’s friends and associates.
Then, using the parish’s mailing list, Bray and church leaders were able to collect the remainder of the $8,000 restoration fee for the bell. The contributions were as large as $1,000 from one donor, but Bray said that many of the donations were much smaller.
“There [weren’t] billionaires giving money,” Bray said, “it was all members of the community.”
The restoration began in the summer of 2011, but the extreme heat occasionally stymied workers. In addition to replacing the cracked wood wheel that turns the bell, they sanded the bell and painted it to prevent future damage that could result from Sag Harbor’s proximity to salt water.
They also had to realign the bell on its stands, since it had shifted and was rubbing against the stands.
The bell was in working condition by the end of 2011 and has been rung since around Easter, but Bray said they waited to dedicate it until the spring because they wanted more of Hartman’s friends to be able to attend.
At the ceremony on Sunday, the bell will be blessed and a soloist will perform Bray and Hartman’s song, “Till There Was You,” from The Music Man. It begins: “There are bells all around, but I never heard them ringing, I never heard them at all, till there was you.”
A reception will follow the dedication. Those in attendance will be able to view both a new plaque noting the dedication and one of the original order slips for the bell, which was found in the Church’s archives by Priest-in-Charge Karen Campbell.
While repairing the bell creates a public memorial for his late partner, Bray says it also helps to preserve an important part of Sag Harbor history.
“It’s an artifact and an historic object that you cannot see but you can here,” Bray said. “There are monuments and things all around, the historic homes, [that you can see] but this is an artifact. Nobody ever sees it, but now they’ll be able to hear it.”