By Courtney M. Holbrook
For David Bray and Neal Hartman, the song “Till There Was You” stood for their 40-year relationship. The refrain “there were bells, but I never heard them ringing … till there was you,” said everything and more. They heard those bells.
When Bray and Hartman attended Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, Hartman took joy in ringing the bell rope in the narthex after services.
“Neal loved the bells,” Bray said. “And after each service, when Father Shawn [Williams] would close the service, he would go and ring the bells … He was like the bell ringer of the church.”
But the bell itself is damaged, its wooden wheel detached from its base due to age and use. For a while, the church has used a canticle to conclude the service.
Hartman passed away on October 24, 2010. In honor of his partner, and the church where he spent so much of his time, Bray has arranged “the most appropriate memorial.”
Bray hopes to restore the bells of Christ Episcopal Church, and let them ring on May 20, 2012.
“The idea fell into place,” Bray said. “It was the best thing, to begin this restoration and do it in [Hartman’s] name.”
“I knew it would be difficult to think of something appropriate for someone like [Hartman], who was so connected and so involved in this parish,” Williams said. “Bringing the bell back to something that would work, it was actually a perfect memorial.”
The church was built in 1847, and the bell was first noted in the Sag Harbor Express of Thursday, March 12, 1908. Mrs. Russell Sage had the bell shipped and erected by the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, N.Y. The Meneely Bell Company also financed bells for the funeral of John F. Kennedy, and the replacement of the Liberty Bell.
The bell was made of “purest bronze composition, is sweet in tone and measures 46 inches at its mouth, its weight being greater than that of any bell now in Sag Harbor,” according to the Express.
Bray looks at the renovation project as both a memorial for Hartman, and an addition to the historic authenticity of Sag Harbor. Bray notes the bell’s restoration is an example of “historic preservation, where we offer something which can be heard, but is not visible.”
According to Bray, the bell’s restoration is not only a benefit for the congregation of the church, but a “precious Sag Harbor historical artifact that serves the community as a whole.”
Originally, Bray had intended for the bells to ring once more this October, but the time and funds needed for restoration showed the process would take longer than first expected. Bray noted the month of May, when winter has passed and summer residents have begun to return, would be perfect.
The damaged bell is one of only two in Sag Harbor. To let this record of life in Sag Harbor go silent would render “an invisible artifact doomed to sitting in silence,” according to Bray.
“This was so important to Neal,” Bray said. “But it’s not a selfish idea on my part. We want the good citizens of Sag Harbor to have a this beautiful piece of history.”
Father Williams made the announcement to the congregation of the church two weeks ago. The response was positive; congregants seemed to understand the importance of the bell’s restoration, according to Williams.
“People like bells, they give life to a lot of things,” Rev. Williams said. “And David and I are on the same wavelength, I think; we know that what would be good for the church also works so well with the [Sag Harbor] Village’s plan to maintain historicity.”
So, as the months continue, the broken wheel of wood will be replaced with stainless steel, hopefully allowing it to ring for “another 100 years,” Williams said. A plaque with Hartman’s name will also be set up in the church.
When the day comes when Bray will be able to ring the bell once again, he’ll do so not just in memory of Sag Harbor’s rich history, but also in honor of Hartman, and his dedication to the congregation and the people of Sag Harbor. And he will do it in memory of their song, and the bells they heard and rang together.
“The bells have always been in our lives,” Bray said. “Bells were our song, they were what Neal loved … they brought us such joy together.”
Donations to the Bell Restoration Project at Christ Episcopal Church can be made to P.O. Box 570, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963.