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Oldest Church Bell In Kalamazoo To Be Restored

Kalamazoo's oldest church bell sits in the lobby of First Congregational Church, waiting to be restored.
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

This is the oldest church bell in Kalamazoo. It was made in 1836 and brought here by ox cart - just a few years after the village that would become Kalamazoo was founded. 

First Congregational Church is planning to restore the bell - but the history of Kalamazoo churches raises questions about which one the bell belongs to.

Kalamazoo Churches Working Together - Then And Now

Many of the churches downtown used to be part of one small church on South Street - close to where the Kalamazoo Public Library is now. There Presbyterians and Congregationalists worshipped together, which wasn’t uncommon back in pioneer days. Here's Reverend Nathan Dannison of First Congregational Church:

“Out of that first meeting house kind of grew into several different historic churches around the park including First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church. We all claim a little bit of that history for ourselves, which is kind of why every church around the park says it’s the oldest church in town. But we shared everything in those first years in the 1830s and we continue to work together.”

In fact, when North Presbyterian Church had to leave their building on North Burdick Street last year, First Congregational agreed to let them share their space.

“North Presbyterian Church is one of the most amazing churches in Kalamazoo because one of its organizing principles is that it is a ministry with and alongside folks with mental and physical disabilities," says Dannison.

"Since we see ourselves as a parent church or a founding church of North Presbyterian we invited them to our chapel. So they’ve been worshipping in our chapel since last Easter.”

In turn, North Presbyterian gave their building to Ebenezer Pentecostal Church - a Spanish-speaking congregation.

The Bell Survives Fires And New Locations

The bell has been through several fires and no less than five buildings. In 1866, the original church meeting house was converted into a blacksmith shop, so the bell moved to a Presbyterian church nicknamed the “White Church” on the corner of South and Rose streets. That church caught fire in 1883 and the bell came crashing down into the church basement. Two years later, a new brick church was built on the same spot - but that church burned down too, in 1926.

After that it was moved to North Presbyterian Church where it stayed for about 90 years. The bell was restored in 1960, but the bell was mostly silent at North Presbyterian. It wasn’t installed correctly and would get tangled up in the tower. Dannison and Reverend Barrett Lee of North Presbyterian found the bell last year. 

“We didn’t even know if it was still there cause nobody had heard it rung for a half a century," says Dannison.

The Bell Needs A New Home

Right now the bell is in First Congregational’s lobby. Dannison says once the bell is restored, he wants to put it in a more public place - like Bronson Park.

“Hopefully it’s going to be placed in a location where anybody from the city can come and see it and ring it whenever they feel like it and we’ll hear it once again," he says.

Dannison says historically, church bells have been used in a variety of ways. They’re rung to celebrate a wedding, mourn a death, or even as a fire alarm.

“We need to get up and help put out this fire. But they’re also rung to call people to worship and call people to an attitude of reverence. Today it’s hoped that when church bells are rung it gives people a moment to pause and remember that they’re part of a community, they’re part of something larger than themselves. That’s what I think about when I hear the bells at St. Luke’s or the beautiful carillon at Kalamazoo College. These things are meant to be a symbol of our community and our togetherness.”

Reverend Dannison says First Congregational plans to start working to restore the bell this summer.