AYER — Church bells calling a congregation to worship are heard across the world.
The bell at the Federated Church have been ringing out over the town since it was moved to Ayer after the Trinitarian church in Fitchburg disbanded in 1872.
“Can you hear it?” Ralph Winslow used to say to his daughter Joyce Pierce, “It’s saying ‘Come to church. Come to church.”
The bell, which rings at the same pitch as middle C on a piano, has said many things in its long history. Cast for use on a Mississippi plantation, it was seized as war booty and auctioned in Boston during the Civil War.
“To be the voice of freedom, that’s the voice this bell has,” said the Rev. Hannelore Nalesnik, minister of the church.
Who made the bell?
The answer is on the bell itself.
Dated 1856, it was made by the Buckeye Bell Foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio and cast by G. W. Coffin.
Weighing in at 800 pounds, the casting includes decorative floral motifs near the top and figures all around the bottom rim. The lower part of the bell is corroded by time, but another bell cast by Coffin in 1850 looks very similar.
The bell at the Second Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, W.V. has cavorting cherubs. Pictures are on historicsecondpresbyterian.org.
The successor to the Buckeye Bell Foundry, the VanDuzen Company, later created Big Joe, the largest swinging bell ever cast in the United States, according to saintfrancisdesalesparish.org. The 35,000 pound bell, installed in the Saint Francis De Sales Catholic Church in Cincinnati, rattled buildings and loosened mortar. Still in use, it is now struck rather than rung.
The first owner
Tracking down the origin of the bell fell to an Ayer historian, George J. Burns. His quest was made easy by a big hint cast into the bell itself: B. D. Beavin, Plains, Miss. 1856.
The enterprising Ayer resident sent a letter to the New Orleans Picayune, according to D. Hamilton Hurd in “History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts.” Two surviving members of the Beavin family got in touch with Burns and filled him in.
After B. D. died, the executors of the estate decided to send the bell to be melted down for Confederate cannon. A slave named John Heddens, hauled the bell to the river landing for transport. He remained “in the family” on the 1,400-acre farm until his death in 1889.
Bells were used to mark the beginning and end of meal times and the work day, according to the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum website. The bell warned neighbors of dangers like fires and announced the arrival of guests. They were even rung during celebrations.
Seizing the bell
A Massachusetts man, Gen. Benjamin Butler, confiscated the bell and other valuables during the Civil War. He was the administrator in New Orleans after northern troops took power. The goods were shipped north and auctioned.
During his reign in New Orleans, Butler acquired the nickname “Spoons.” The name came as a result of rumors of graft and stealing silverware from mansions, according to Robert C. Kennedy in the New York Times.
Butler’s acquisitions are still raising hackles. In 2015, the Catholic Church installed five bells in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. They had been in the Holy Trinity German Church in Boston that was closed.
The New Orleans Advocate, referring to the Yankee general as “Beast,” found out about those bells from an article in the Boston Globe.
“If the Germans can return works of art plundered in World War II, maybe the Yankees should give our bells back,” columnist James Gill wrote on Nov. 2, 2015.
From Boston to Fitchburg
Fitchburg abolitionist Benjamin Snow purchased the Beavin bell for the Trinitarian Church in town. The bell was part of a shipment sent north for auction from New Orleans.
Support for freeing the slaves was not universal in the northern industrial city. The Fitchburg Trinitarian Church was formed when a group calling for abolition split from the established Congregational Church which did not support freeing the slaves.
“The members of this Church shall not engage in slave-holding or in apologizing for slavery,” was the third rule for the Fitchburg Trinitarians, published in 1843.
At Snow’s request, the church waited until slaves were freed before ringing the bell. He was the first to pull the rope after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
A small boy celebrated the historic occasion his own way. He ran into the street and yelled, “Hurrah, the niggers are free! The niggers are free,” according to William Emerson in “Fireside Legends.” Presumably, the word was in common use and not considered derogatory.
After the Civil War, Butler became a congressman and governor. He died in 1893 and is buried in the Hildreth Family Cemetery in Lowell.
The Ayer Federated Church
Originally a Congregational Society, the church formed in 1861, 10 years before Ayer incorporated as a town.
It took several years and a lot of fundraising to build the church on Washington Street. The land was purchased in 1864. The building was built in 1867, D. Hamilton Hurd wrote in “History of Middlesex County.”
Solicitors raised money, gaining the support of over 50 other churches. They were helped by free passes on the Fitchburg Railroad while they looked for funds, said the Rev. Hannelore Nalesnik.
In 1915, the church unified with the Methodist Episcopalians and in 1931, formed a federation with Congregational, Methodist and American Baptists all under one roof.
Today there are about 25 active members, Nalesnik said.
Want to ring the bell?
The Ayer Federated Church is planning “Humble and Kind,” an evening event with entertainment, food and activities for the community.
The building will be open between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 during the celebration.