New church bell in Iowa town beckons forgiveness

6 News WOWT Live at 10
Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 11:23 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LEWIS, Iowa (WOWT) - Those who settled across the Midwest in the 1800s relied upon the sounds of bells ringing. Bells called children to school, and families to worship.

“That’s what called you into church to start the worship day,” Lewis, Iowa’s Jerry Hudson said. “Very important.”

Hudson is a board member at the United Congregational Methodist Church (UCMC) in Lewis, Cass County, Iowa. The church traces its heritage back the mid-1800s at the Congregational Church, which after combining with another church became UCMC around 1970.

The church bell that called them to meet at the Congregational Church starting in 1865 moved to a newly built combined church in 1971. By then, the bell didn’t ring anymore, but its presence was iconic to the little town where it sat at the corner of 1st Street and Main Street for 50 years.

Until March, when the bronze bell cast in 1865 was stolen and sold for scrap.

“When we discovered the bell was gone, we just couldn’t believe it,” pastor Jerry Neal said. “We were just heartbroken, the bell had been with us since the 1850s.”

So the call went out, and from western Nebraska to Indiana, offers of bells came in. School bells, church bells, broken bells, shiny bells. The first call came from Homer, Iowa, where Elaine Winchell offered her father’s old bell. He saved it when the old Methodist church closed down 40 years ago, and handed it down when he died. It sat mostly out in the yard, something for kids to play with. Until she heard about the theft.

“We had so many people that reached out to us and offered us bells,” UCMC secretary Deanne Knudsen said. Elaine was the first one to offer, but the bell seemed too big, and the church wasn’t sure. “We went back and reached out to Elaine, we wanted to see the bell, we looked at the bell, and it was just beautiful.”

Some in the church might call it providence. The Winchell bell came from a Methodist church, and was forged in 1879 at the same foundry, McShane Bell Company in Maryland, that crafted the original bell.

Duane Weirich and his company crafted its place on the existing marquee, which was spruced up by church members. He created a new cross for the marquee, too, and last Friday, everything was put to the test when they rang the bell for the first time.

“It came from a Methodist church and needed to belong in a Methodist church,” Weirich said. “And I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to make it work for this church, in this setting.”

As for those stealing the bell, they were arrested back in April. They’ve done their time in jail, Neal said. And he said its important that people understand the church forgives them.

“We’ve been telling people about forgiveness,” he said. “That’s why we have a cross (with the word forgiveness on it), the word reminds us, we’re forgiven and we need to be forgiving of all the folks who did this.”

The bell will be dedicated at worship service on Sunday, November 27 at 11:30 a.m. Its recommended visitors arrive early, so they don’t miss the historic call-to-church by the ringing of the bell.

Its more than a ring to the pastor, who feels it down to his very soul. Neal refers to them as the Liberty Bell and Cross of Freedom.

“For me it starts with the heart, you can feel it vibrate and you just know its home, it was meant to be here, waiting for us all those decades,” he said. “For me, the bell is a liberty bell, every time we ring it it declares we’re free, and the cross with it... First from a heart basis, then from a mind basis, its just like, wow, God really is good.”