The Legend of the Bell

A Vestry meeting on December 23, 1794, at the original St. Stephen’s church, it was stated that while the bell tower had been completed, it lacked a bell. William Gelston, a member of the Vestry, was appointed to raise the funds necessary to purchase one. The fundraising was successful, as by January of 1795 a committee consisting of William Gelston, Oliver Warner, and Capt. Oliver Attwood, were appointed to make the purchase.

The bell was hung and used for only a brief few years before tragedy struck, quite literally. On April 22, 1798, Amasa Brainerd, who legend has it was a nonbeliever, was attending to have the banns (a church custom of notification of marriage) published for marriage to a church member, when he was hit on the head with the clinger. He died two days later.[1] In the adjoining Riverview Cemetery at the Brainerd plot, Amasa’s tombstone states:

Sacred to the memory of – Amasa Brainerd Jr. Son of Lieut Amasa and Mrs-Jedielah Brainerd who received a mortal wound on his head – by the falling of a weight from the bell-on Sunday the 22nd of April 1798 – as he was about to enter the Church -to attend divine worship – who departed this life – April 24th in the 20th year of – his age – In the mist of life we are in death.

Could detractors of the Brainerd family create this legend? From the family name, church position, and inscription on the tombstone, it appears Amasa was a regular church member. On the other hand, was the family trying to cover up the fact for posterity that he did not attend services?

On December 24, 1799, the Vestry voted to create another fundraiser to buy a replacement bell. This fundraiser was unsuccessful, and in the June of 1802, it was voted to sell the old bell, using those proceeds to purchase a new one. One has to wonder if the fundraiser was unsuccessful because the Brainerd’s were against it, causing the legend to get started? In any event, a bell was never purchased and the proceeds went to paint the exterior of the church.[2]

The question of the bell was revisited in March of 1826. Joseph Goodspeed was appointed to create a means to raise money for a new bell. He made his report on May 3rd, and it was accepted.

Thus began the story of the supposedly oldest in the Western Hemisphere. According to a church pamphlet, the bell was cast for a Spanish monastery in the year 815 A D. When Napoleon’s army invaded Spain, the church in which the bell hung was one of countless houses of worship sacked by the ravaging troops. The bell was part of the general debris. Another church pamphlet suggests that the famed Duke of Wellington took it as part of the spoils of war when he overcame Napoleon.

In a letter to Rev. G. W. Griffith from Dr. Arthur H. Nichols, a campanologist (art of bell ringing), states that some ravaging did occur, and the monastery of Montserrat (near Barcelona) was blown up because it was used by the monks as a magazine and barracks. In addition, the French pulled down walls of monasteries in Salamanca to shore up city defenses as Wellington was about to attack. In such cities as Saragossa, Gerona, Sarragonna, Toledo, and Grenada that had been damaged and looted, had their church bells intact.[3]

Another version involves the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833 and the succession under the Regency of the Infant Queen Isabella, which incited rebellion from a group called the Carlists. They opposed Isabella and supported the brother of King Ferdinand VII, Don Carlos de Borbon. The Carlists were strongly Catholic, and when their rebellion failed and the government secularized many monastic orders that had followed the Carlists, thousands of bells made their way to England out of spite. [4]

Yet another story features Capt. Ephrain Roberts Andrews of East Haddam involved in a naval blockade of Pensacola, Florida during the First Seminole War (1816 to 1818). He stopped at St. Augustine, Florida, to purchase supplies on his way north. As there was a bell dockside, he took it, knowing that St. Stephen’s needed one. This bell was brought to New York City where he turned it over to William Wyllis Pratt, the son-in-law of Oliver Attwood, who brought the bell to East Haddam somewhere between 1834 and 1835[5]. That Capt. Pratt handled the bell in New York City all can agree on.

As the First Carlsist War was from 1833 to 1839, and the bell was brought to East Haddam between 1834 and 1835, makes the story of Carlist retribution somewhat unlikely. However, while the dates surrounding the Capt. Andrews version of the legend and the Napoleonic Wars origin could both be true, the questions remain: how did it get to Spanish Florida, and where was it for sixteen years?

The most likely story appears in a copy of a newspaper clipping that stated the bell was one of three bells sent from Spain to be sold on consignment. This version is less glamorous but more believable.

The bell has its own story attached to it. All sources agree that the bell belonged to a monastery. The word “procurador” inscribed on the bell was term to designate the official having charge of the economic accounts of the vineyards, orchards, real estate, and building enterprises. The word “prior” was attached to cathedrals as well as convents.

The worn section of the bell indicates that the bell was used as a quarter bell of a tower containing a clock. It was a universal custom in Spain to strike the quarters on a bell of moderate weight, the hour being rung on a heavy bell.[6]

The inscription on the bell is in both Latin and Spanish:

Concepit de espiriti santo ano de 815 Siendo prior el V P Dn Migues Villa Nueva Procurador El V P Dn Josef Estevan
Corales me Hizo

Translated: “Concieved in the spirit of the Holy Ghost in the year 815 When the pious Don Migues Villa was the prior and the new Procurtor. Corales made me.”

That the date, 815, is not placed in juxtaposition to the word Hizo (meaning made) where it would naturally be inserted, if it referred to the date of the casting. The words “ano de 815 concepit de espiritu” a medley of Spanish and Latin form part of an incomplete sentence: for the active verb “concepit” needs an object which is not present. Could they be part of a running sentence completed on a corresponding part of another bell(s)? Maybe this data records the birth of the saint to whom the bell is dedicated. This would perhaps be the founder or the first of the monastery. However, if the bell was cast in the ninth century, only Latin would be used, possibly fecit, fudit, or facta instead of Hizo.[7]

Two books refer to this matter. Cymbala, by J. Smits Van Waesberghe states that the bells began to be cast about the beginning of the seventh century. Later he stated castings began at least in the tenth century, and that bells were found in monasteries at least by the thirteenth century.

Book of Bells, by Salis N. Coleman, notes that bells began to have inscriptions on them in the middle ages, and that by the late 1600’s, began putting names on them[8]. Finally, the Rev. Richard Payne of St. Stephen’s wondered if the “one” was dropped from the date.[9]

The bell is 32 inches high and 33 inches in diameter and was originally hung from a tripod in front of a blacksmith shop at the Upper Landing, currently known as the Gelston House. Then it was transferred to the belfry of St. Stephen’s. For about five years, it was necessary to ring the bell by hand as it was considered unsafe to ring it from a pull below the belfry until it was reframed to support it.

When the current St. Stephen’s was built, there was no bell tower to place the bell in, so the bell sat on a wall near the church. On March 14, 1900, a committee composed of William Goodspeed, Wilbur Comstock, and Marion Watrous were appointed to “procure plans for and estimates of the cost for a suitable tower in which to hang, for its preservation and protection, the old bell taken from the first St. Stephen’s.”[10]

Three years after the committee was formed, the Ladies Aid Society (the women of St. Stephen’s) asked permission to erect a tower under the supervision of the Vestry. The offer was accepted. On September 11, 1904, the tower on the southwest corner of the church was completed, the bell installed, and rung for the first time at the new St. Stephen’s Church.[11] The bell is in current use today for services, funerals, and other special occasions.

by Phil Piccola

[1] Katharine H. Boylston, St. Stephen’s history notebook

[2] Katharine H. Boylston, St. Stephen’s history notebook

[3] Connecticut Valley Advertiser, dated August 10, 1900

[4] Connecticut Valley Advertiser, dated August 10, 1900

[5] Copied unknown newspaper article

[6] Connecticut Valley Advertiser, dated August 10, 1900

[7] Connecticut Valley Advertiser, dated August 10, 1900

[8] Connecticut Valley Advertiser, dated August 10, 1900

[9] Free Lance Star, dated November, 11, 1986

[10] Katharine H. Boylston, St. Stephen’s history notebook

[11] Katharine H. Boylston, St. Stephen’s history notebook