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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, Juy 28, 2011

Ringing in the future by recognizing the past
Bell tower in Berne will commemorate the consolidation of two churches

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

BERNE — The history of two churches will be commemorated in a new tower, home to antique bells from both of their steeples.

Two 19th-Century Lutheran churches — St. John’s in East Berne and St. Paul’s in Berne — merged a year-and-a-half ago as the number of regular worshippers in their congregations declined. They formed the Helderberg Evangelical Lutheran Church, which meets in the old St. Paul’s, built in 1835 and host to meetings during the Anti-Rent Wars.

“It’s really sad to lose the lineage of the churches because one dissolved, and the name changed,” said Nancy Lendrum, a Berne native and long-time member of St. Paul’s.

She heads a committee that came up with the plan to build a new bell tower.

“Something that commemorates the churches will soften the blow,” said Lendrum. “And it’s nice to have something new at a church at a time when churches are struggling.”

The old St. John’s Church in East Berne, which was built in 1873, is now being used by the Helderberg Christian School.

“That’s a real blessing,” said Lendrum who also noted that the merging of the two congregations has “worked well.” There are currently about 97 members in the combined congregations, she said.

The bell from St. Paul’s Church had to be removed when the church agreed to have Verizon lease space in the steeple for a cell tower. “We wanted to put it somewhere,” she said of the displaced bell.

Lendrum’s committee has seven other members: Maver Becker, Jack Milner, Barbara Eriksen, Brian Eriksen, Barbara Genter, Jim Swint, and Frances Miller. The committee has spent many months planning the project.

“Everybody on the committee was raised in Berne,” said Lendrum. “Berne has deep roots.”

The late Geraldine Becker, Maver’s wife, was a member of the committee until her death. After she died on Nov. 7, 2009, thousands of dollars were donated to the bell tower project in her name, said Lendrum.

Overall, the committee expects the bell tower will cost $32,000 with donated work. The committee is acting as the contractor for the project.

“Jerry and Maver Becker saw a bell tower on a trip that they liked. That tower was kind of modern looking,” said Lendrum. “We changed it to fit the time period of our church.”

The bell tower will be built in front of St. Paul’s on the lawn by the Helderberg Trail. It will stand about 25 feet tall and will have a brick face on a steel frame with a reflecting pool underneath.

 “Our church is Georgian,” said Lendrum. “We’ve used some of the same features on our steeple for the bell tower. The tower will be made of modern materials to blend and coordinate. Hopefully, it will last as long as the church does.”

Lendrum, who works in design for the state’s Office of General Services, came up with the idea for the reflecting pool. “The pool design is based on the stained glass behind our altar…[showing] when Jesus rose from the dead…and sat on the edge of the fountain.”

She said of the pool at the foot of the bell tower, “People can sit there and reflect as they look up at the bells.” So it will be a “reflecting” pool in two senses of the word — mirroring the scenery as well as inspiring introspection.

The top bell will be fitted with electronics, Lendrum said, so that it will ring. Both of the bells are bronze and were made by the same family in Troy — the Meneelys.

St. John’s bell was cast in 1915 and St. Paul’s in 1870, said Lendrum.

Andrew Meneely started the Meneely Bell Foundry in West Troy in 1826. After he died, two of his sons continued the business while a third son in 1870 started another foundry in Troy named the Meneely Bell Company. Before closing in 1952, when electronic bells became more widely used, the two foundries made about 62,000 bells.

Meneely bells can be heard in churches, colleges, and firehouses across the United States, and in Europe as well. One famous bell was made in 1918 to commemorate the independence of Czechoslovakia after World War I and hangs in St. Anthony’s Church in Prague.

Meneely bells have rung in the United States for presidential inaugurations and funerals. The replacement for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was a Meneely bell, and Meneely bells ring at Cornell University and at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Construction on the Berne bell tower is slated to begin in a few weeks, said Lendrum, and should be completed this fall.

In addition to memorial contributions, money for the bell tower has come from craft fairs and other fund-raisers, said Lendrum. Now, funds are being solicited from individuals or groups who want to pay for names to be engraved on the Helderberg bluestone base of the tower.

The cost before the Sept. 1 deadline is $8 a letter. “Names may be added at any time after that date, but the cost is a lot higher,” said Lendrum as the engraver would have to travel to the site of the tower.

People who want to put their names on the base of the tower, or to memorialize ancestors affiliated with either church, may call Lendrum at 872-1186.

“It’s for people affiliated in some way with the churches,” said Lendrum. “You could put your cousin’s name on it.

“The bell tower,” she concluded, “will commemorate the history of each church. It’s a nice symbol to combine the bells from both churches.”

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