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The rise of the Macon bell that fell

The last time Christ Episcopal Church couldn’t ring its bell, it was because the massive chime had been melted into Confederate bullets.

The church’s 1868 replacement bell served Macon’s oldest congregation for almost 150 years. Following a bell that had been donated to war, this bell was inscribed to peace.

But it has been silent since Easter Sunday, when the biggest Christian celebration of the year caused it to ring, well, right off its rocker.

The restoration of the 1,250-pound cast bronze bell began Wednesday. Workers from Chris R. Sheridan & Co. prepared to carry steel beams and manual hoists up five flights of rickety stairs above the choir loft. They planned to lift the bell and reinforce its base before resetting it, welding alongside the bats in the belfry.

Covered in decades of dust, the yard-tall bell lay at an angle on its side, where it fell after slipping out of the bracket holding it. In the dim light filtering through arched windows, dozens of bats shifted in their sleep huddles.

There was not enough light to make out the words inscribed in the metal, but John Willingham, a third-generation member of the congregation, recited them later: “Presented to Christ Church Macon GA by A.A. Roff, Sept. 6, 1868. On earth peace, goodwill to men.”

Although the church has electronic chimes which are used during the church service, rector Harriette Simmons said the church’s vestry -- like a church council made up of congregation members -- voted unanimously to fix the bell.

“It’s something that reminds us of the continuity of the church and the ones who have gone before us,” she said.

Its loud “bong” echoed outside the building. Its fall echoed inside.

“I was ringing it Easter Sunday before the 9 a.m. service,” said Robert Hubbard, the sexton of Christ Church for 16 years. “We heard a big bang. I thought the clapper had fell out. The choir thought I ... fell down the steps.”

Hubbard had been ringing the bell by pulling a rope that led from the choir-loft level up to a clapper which banged against the side of the bell.

The clapper is a big rusty hammer the size of the strong man’s hammer at the fair, and it allowed Hubbard to control the number of times the bell chimed.

For special occasions, like weddings, Hubbard pulled the fatter rope that led to a 7-foot wheel attached to the side the bell. Pulling the wheel rocked the entire bell back and forth, pealing the bell.

“Thank God I wasn’t ringing the whole bell and it fell at an angle,” Hubbard said. Otherwise the bell might have continued through the wooden platform beneath it and hit him, as well as the electrical panels and tubes of the church’s massive organ.

The bell didn’t fall far, but nonetheless about a foot of its lip broke off in two pieces, Hubbard said.

Chris Sheridan said his workers will try to epoxy the pieces back into place. Then they’ll test the sound to see if it needs tuning -- or removal for metal working at Elliott Machine Shop.

Sheridan’s company has a history with Macon’s bells. It has repaired or replaced bells at Willingham Chapel, St. Joseph Catholic Church, First Presbyterian Church and the Bibb County Courthouse, he said.

Until Christ Church was remodeled about a dozen years ago, Hubbard used to let the children help with the bell-ringing. They loved it.

“Sometimes there would be three or four pulling together to ring it,” he said. “One kid held on so tight, he flew out of my hands and up above my head, and I thought, ‘Please don’t let go!’ ”

The bell won’t be swinging any more, though. Sheridan said the bell will be stabilized so it can be rung only with the clapper from now on.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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